On Rian Johnson

Posted: March 1, 2010 in Braak, reviews
Tags: , , , ,

Rian Johnson is a man who has written and directed three films:  The Brothers Bloom, Brick, and Evil Demon Golfball from Hell.  I haven’t seen the last one, but the first two are really pretty amazing, and I couldn’t, in good conscience, let another day go by without mentioning them to you.

(This is part of TQP’s ongoing series, “Reviewing Movies that Came Out Like, A Year Ago AT LEAST.”)

Brick, of course, got a lot of attention right after it came out, even though everybody only watched it on video.  I don’t remember The Brothers Bloom being in the movie theater at all, which is weird because I was actively looking for it.  In a moment of what I can only assume was a certain mental abstraction, I turned my attention away from the movie Marquee for a bare fraction of an instant and missed the film.  I rented it from that weird movie-renting vending machine in the grocery store.

Brick wholly deserves the praise it receives; it’s got Joseph Gordon-Levitt in it (also, a cameo by Richard Roundtree!), and it’s essentially a straight transposition of a film-noir story and sensibility onto a high school setting.  Almost everything comes right over — byzantine plot, gangsters, stilted dialogue, moody classical piano score.  About the only thing that doesn’t change is that the movie weather is always sunny and pleasant, leading to a beautifully brilliant paradox between the film’s gut-churningly serious story and LA’s uncommonly clement weather.

The dialogue is what gets most of the attention in Brick, and it’s a bit of an interesting phenomena.  By modern standards, of course, the dialogue isn’t any good at all — but that’s only because hold “realistic” as the sole modern measure of dialogue.  Does it sound like what someone actually said?  Then it’s good, hooray!  Of course, none of the dialogue in Brick sounds like something someone would actually say, unless that someone were playing a 30s gangster in a movie.  It’s film noir dialogue, which never made any pretense at sounding “realistic” per se.

What’s extraordinary about it is that the level of performance is so strong that you don’t even really notice how strange the language of the film is — it become just another color of paint on the moody atmosphere.  Sometimes there are false notes; Johnson seems to have a preoccupation with the world “tale”, which is a word I’m sure they had synonyms for in Olde Timey days, but whatever.

If Brick represents Johnson transposing noir into high school without regard to our modern conventions about how things are supposed to be done, The Brothers Bloom is a kind of explosion of set and time and style that actively attempts to destroy what we think ought to be there in the first place.

The narration is in rhyme — and once you’ve heard it, it becomes clear that the entire movie is in blank verse.  There is a camel drinking whiskey.  Rachel Weisz’s character drives her Lamborghini to the docks so she can catch a ride on a steamer ship.  The question, “Wait, what year is this supposed to take place?”  or “Wait, where is this again?” is completely meaningless.  Rian Johnson made a whole movie out of things that he likes, and it works brilliantly.

There is a scene, about a third of the way in, when they’re in New Jersey and you can’t tell whether or not the forest in the background is an actual forest or just a painting of a forest.  And it does not matter at all, in any way.  Because the movie eschews the essential pretense that we, the audience, must somehow believe these things are real, we could find out that all of the sets were cardboard and the scenes that take place in Prague all happen in front of an elaborate model, and it wouldn’t harm the overall arc of the movie.

I think all of this is extraordinary; the language thing in both of these films really gets to me, because of how rare it is to see anyone in the movies experiment with language these days.  It’s actually especially fascinating to look at it in the weird blue light that Avatar has been casting on everything — here is a movie that all of James Cameron’s techniques couldn’t possible improve; irrefutable evidence that technology and special effects are superfluous.

  1. Jeff Holland says:

    “I’ve got all five senses and I slept last night, that puts me six up on the lot of you,” is, I believe, the most perfect tough-guy sentence that has ever been written. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt sells the shit out of it.

    Brothers Bloom was incredibly charming and utterly gorgeous and ultimately a bit exhausting, plotwise, since the level of reversals and double-triple-crosses and deliberate fictions keeps escalating to the point of not being able to care as much about what the hell is supposed to be going on.

    But I do dream of a world where I can park a lamborghini by crashing it, and have a new one being delivered on a flatbed at the same moment.

  2. Moff says:

    Mmm, I would venture that while technology and special effects are not necessary for telling a good story, there are specific films whose good stories couldn’t be told without them.

    So, they’re superfluous in a general sense; but they’re necessary, or at least highly useful, in the sense that they’re part of what makes movies the medium that they are.

  3. Erin says:

    Oh. So… Brothers Bloom is actually a movie I should see. Noted. I’ll pick it up next time I see it for five bucks or less.

  4. braak says:

    Interesting theory, Moff. I suppose we can support it with an experiment — since we judge the quality of special effects on a sliding scale according to what we’re most familiar with, the stories that absolutely required the technological innovations to present themselves realistically are probably no longer considered any good.

    I can’t think of an example off the top of my head, but of course, I wouldn’t be able to, would I? Anything that relied on technology and was made, say, twenty years ago, must now necessarily be of virtually no interest to me.

  5. Moff says:

    Mmm. Maybe we’re talking about different things. But what I mean is: You really think Star Wars—the original, 1977 version, which is still perfectly impressive to me, and of interest—would or could be Star Wars without any of the special effects? What about Cube? That’s about as pared-down as a story gets, but it’s not the same story at all—it doesn’t evoke the same tension and awful horror—unless you can do “Man gets diced into tiny pieces/sprayed in the face with acid just for walking into another room.” Even The Matrix, which is not twenty years old, but which is already played-out from a special effects perspective—still, without those played-out effects, you can’t tell that story. You can tell a similar story, but it’s not that story.

    I mean, you can tell all of these stories without the effects, in a sense. You can do it on cassette tape with a read-along book, like when we were kids; or in novel form; or around a campfire. But you can’t tell them in movie form without those effects. You could tell a similar story, but how do you do Star Wars without lightsabers and starship battles and the Force? In an arty, austere way, maybe, but not in a space opera way.

    (Also, the argument in your first paragraph is falsifiable and erroneous. People do still consider even some of the oldest cinema special effects good, as in this review of Metropolis, from 1927. And the effects are good! But again, maybe we’re saying different things?)

  6. braak says:

    Well, all right. First of all, I never said anything about special effects being “good.” That’s a vague way to put it, and I like to think I was more specific than that, but in case I wasn’t let me clarify — when I talk about the “quality” of special effects, I am talking specifically about how effectively a thing can be realistically portrayed on screen. And, when I talk about how essential that special effect is to the story, I am specifically talking about how essential that realism is to the appreciation of the film.

    Because, in fact, the presentation of giant blue cat-people in Avatar is not noteworthy because of how extraordinary it is that there should be giant blue cat-people, but according to how realistic that portrayal of giant blue cat-people was.

    The effect of “realism” is built on a sliding scale. When film was first invented, audiences flipped out because they thought the locomotive was coming right towards them. A modern eye looks at those same images and doesn’t see them as anything but purely fabricated. The special effects that we see in old time movies can sometimes be remarkable, but they’re rarely actually convincing.

    And, frankly, they shouldn’t have to be. You shouldn’t have to think that a guy in a robot suit is actually a robot in order to accept that he’s playing a robot. The movies that we talk about as being “classics”, the science fiction pieces that hold up over time are the ones that, even if and when you can see the seams, you’re still interested in them (except for Predator. Predator was just fucking awesome.)

    I don’t know. I guess, let me put it this way: if we can say conclusively that The Matrix was a great movie, and The Matrix: Revolutions was a conclusively pretty stupid movie, but they had the exact same quality of special effects, doesn’t that mean that we can rule out the quality of the special effects as a deciding factor in how good a movie is?

    It is true that you can’t tell exactly the same story without certain elements, but I’m not sure how important that is. And, in fact, you can tell Star Wars without spaceships and lightsabers and the Force. You’d just end up with The Hidden Fortress, or something, I guess.

    But, again, my point is not that the elements of design are unimportant; it’s that the preoccupation with technologically-achieved realism is unimportant.

  7. Moff says:

    Well, if that’s your point, we’re in complete agreement.

  8. braak says:


  9. Moff says:

    OK, THEN.

    (But if you want to argue some more:

    “I don’t know. I guess, let me put it this way: if we can say conclusively that The Matrix was a great movie, and The Matrix: Revolutions was a conclusively pretty stupid movie, but they had the exact same quality of special effects, doesn’t that mean that we can rule out the quality of the special effects as a deciding factor in how good a movie is?”

    Well, sort of. I mean, I’d say special-effects quality will always be trumped by story quality for the discerning viewer. But that’s not to say that special effects don’t help decide how good a movie is, whatever “good” means here.

    I mean, there’s a reason that the only reason anyone today has heard of The Hidden Fortress is Star Wars.)

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