A couple of films my wife and I took in last week, one new and one old, offered up some surprising perspective on the way movies are made and how effectively, or ineffectively, too much showy technique can influence the outcome.
On Tuesday we took in “Mama,” a PG-13 horror movie that proved to be much better than most modern fright flicks, a ghost story with an interesting plot that holds interest and works pretty well until it falls apart in the finale.
I won’t give it away except to say that a choice at the end seems to undermine everything that’s gone before, something an awful lot of genre movies do today by violating the very rules they set for themselves. The apparent idea is to add one last twist that might give the film some memorable moment to distinguish itself, but which too often, as in this case, just causes the audience to scratch its collective head and ask, “Say what”?
There are many examples, but it’s a discussion that’s difficult to have without giving away “spoilers,” so, lest I be inundated with outraged emails, we’ll save it for another time.
Even more than its wrong-headed denouement, what really struck me about “Mama” from start to finish was how it used music and extremely loud, booming sound effects to bolster scenes that are intended to startle, but which became an annoying cliché before the film was half over. The effect, instead of fright, caused me to wonder if the filmmakers simply lacked confidence in their work, falling back on a bag of technical tricks to overcompensate.
Take for example the first time we see a ghostly apparition, which occurs as two young girls are being led by their father to the proverbial “cabin in the woods.” As they approach the structure, the oldest girl looks at a window and sees a fleeting shadowy figure. Lest we misinterpret this moment, just as this mysterious shape appears there is a thunderous boom.
I couldn’t help but wonder how much more effective that scary introduction to the title apparition might have been in silence, with just the ambient sound of the forest. And the question returned every time one of these ear-splitting pronouncements occurred, and they arrived with some regularity. It couldn’t have been more obvious if instead we saw printed on the screen each time, “This is a scary bit.”
Of course, silence is a rare commodity in modern movies. The thinking seems to be that today’s attention-deficit audiences won’t tolerate any scene that is not filled with music, either orchestral or, more often these days, a pop song with lyrics that tell us precisely what we’re supposed to be feeling.
All of which brings me to the older film we saw the very next day, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” part of Cinemark’s “Classic Series.”
I’ve seen “Butch & Sundance” many times but never in a theater. I was overseas courtesy of the Army when the film was initially released in 1969 and only caught up with it later on TV and home video. So this was a real treat.
And when you see a movie in a theater, as opposed to watching it at home even under the best possible conditions, you always pick up on something that perhaps went unnoticed before. Maybe it was seeing “Mama” the day before, but the thing that struck me on this viewing was the way the film used its background score. And even more significantly, when it didn’t.
There are many moments in “Butch & Sundance” with no music at all, quiet, pensive sequences that work just fine the way they are, thank you. But which, if filmed today, would undoubtedly be packed end-to-end with boisterous orchestrations.
This was driven home all the more by the auditoriums on either side of the one showing “Butch & Sundance,” which sent the thundering soundtracks from whatever films were playing through the walls, so that we heard a distant pounding, rousing music, screaming, yelling, automatic weapons firing, whatever. Especially when our film was silent.
Despite that minor distraction, however, Butch, Sundance and their gang did just fine as they robbed trains and banks, jabbed each other with comic digs and asked that inevitable question about the posse that just wouldn’t give up on them: “Who are those guys?”
There was gunfire, a train car was blown up, orchestral background music came and went, and B.J. Thomas sang “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head.” But when it fell into moments that were quiet, with just the sound of horses' hoofs or rustling leaves or general body movement, it was actually quite an effective technique.
It’s a lesson that should not be so lost on 21st century filmmakers. Just because it’s old school doesn’t mean it’s not a better choice.