I watched a really just utterly fucking awful movie the other night because it was directed by John Woo. I had heard it was a return to form for him, but it wasn't. It sucked. And the reason had nothing to do with the directing -- John Woo's an incredible director. It was the script.
I love John Woo's early movies from Hong Kong. I really can't watch anything he's done since he got to America. And the interesting thing is, in Hong Kong, John Woo wrote the scripts for all his movies. In America, he hasn't done that once.
I used to think Woo had accepted this creatively emasculated new life in Hollywood because of the money you can make in Hollywood. But in the past few years, the landscape of Chinese film has changed tremendously, and now I think he saw it coming. I think he left Hong Kong because Hong Kong was changing.
The change coincides with the Beijing takeover after the British left. Hong Kong was once autonomous of the Chinese government; today it's subservient to it.
Where we once got amazing action flicks like The Killer and Hard-Boiled, along with mind-boggling acrobatic kung fu from the likes of Yuen Wu Ping, we now get a buttload of boring bullshit along the lines of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (I actually fell asleep in the theater).
Awe-inspiring classics like Iron Monkey are in Cantonese. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is in Mandarin. Cantonese is the language of Hong Kong, and Mandarin is the language of Beijing. (Disclaimer: I'm generalizing, I'm not Chinese, but it's a pretty decent approximation.)
What's going on in Hong Kong is that the Communist Party has taken over the film industry, and turned it into a kung fu ballet factory whose sole purpose is to make Chinese culture look grand and important. Of course they're failing -- they're really making Chinese culture look grandoise and self-important -- but the real tragedy here is that John Woo, once the greatest movie-maker in the world, is reduced to filming pathetically weak Ben Affleck vehicles.
Let's talk about the weak Ben Affleck vehicle in question. It's called Paycheck and it's based on a Philip K. Dick short story. The movie fails, and the reason it fails is the script. The script isn't structured around people. It revolves around some random objects in an envelope, and I suspect the short story was structured that way too.
The thing is, in a short story, that's OK. Written fiction has many, many more options in terms of its structure than a movie does. Written fiction involves the reader's mind and imagination, and it can use practically anything for its structure. The fantasy author Steven Brust sometimes structures parts of his novels around geography, and more than that, imaginary geography. I can't even imagine what James Joyce and Jack Kerouac were structuring their fiction around, if anything, but it works. Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club is structured around a passionate rant against consumerism.
By contrast, if you read about screenwriting, one of the cardinal rules is that the story must be character-driven. It can only ever be structured around people. For a very long time I thought this was meaningless Hollywood nonsense. I thought that the whole point of this "character-driven" idea was that movie stars wanted to feel important. I thought it was just vanity. But watching Paycheck, a movie which is absolutely not character-driven, I realized why these screenwriting books say this stuff. It isn't vanity at all. It's mechanics.
When people decide what movies to watch, the actor who's starring often plays a huge role in their decision. Actors bring people into the theater. But all an actor can actually do once the audience is there is portray human drama. Paycheck fails because it's a movie about the process and experience of analytical thinking, and also the nature of Einsteinian time-space. In other words, it fails because it's a movie where the actors don't have anything to do.
Analytical thinking happens inside somebody's head. All actors can do is portray human drama. If the only drama in a situation is that something is happening inside somebody's head, all the actor can do is stand there and go "Hmmm."
This doesn't mean you couldn't make a good movie about the nature of Einsteinian time-space. It just means that the only way to do it is to uncover some human drama therein.
Again, I always thought that this was because movie stars get all the attention, and cursed it as a kind of vanity on the movie stars' part, or a shallowness on the part of the audience. But what I learned watching Paycheck is that the problem is purely mechanical. You need human drama because you're watching, and when you're watching, the most important information is facial expressions. That information is the information you process most quickly and most efficiently. There are actually distinct parts of the brain which cannot process any other kind of information except for facial expressions. Your brain is hard-wired to always consider facial expressions more significant than any other information in the vicinity. This means that facial expressions are, on a subconscious level, the primary source of information about what's happening in a movie. And facial expressions are powered by emotion. So the only way to convey information to an audience is to give the actors emotions to convey that information with.
In Terminator 2 you know why Sarah Connor wants to stop the engineer, Miles, from building a computer which will destroy the world. You can see it on her face.
There's nothing that obvious in Paycheck, though. It's full of people who follow the main characters around and explain why the main characters are doing things. It's the only way the audience can figure out what's happening. There's no emotion on the stars' faces, because there's nothing in the script they they can put emotion on their faces with.
Miles from Terminator 2 is a great example, actually, because the same actor's also in Paycheck. He was great in Terminator 2, because he had an amazing role. He's nothing in Paycheck, and it isn't due to lack of talent. He's very talented, but the script doesn't give him anything to do except follow Ben Affleck around and tell other people why Ben Affleck is doing stuff.
Writing a script which has no compelling human drama means writing a script which has no dialogue -- only narration.