Tell, don't show

Expanding a bit on my take on Reality Bites below, one of the things that really bugged me about the movie was the Ethan Hawke character. This is a character billed as a genius philosopher. At one point someone claims, hyperbolically, that he has a 180 IQ. But... he's not actually very smart. Or, rather, the deep thoughts with which he periodically graces us are quite lame. It's annoying because we are constantly told how smart he is, but are left underwhelmed when he displays his brilliance.

The movie compensates for this by making everyone else dumb. Or, rather, it sloppily makes everyone smart most of the time, except in designated "show how smart Ethan Hawke is" scenes, in which suddenly everyone except Ethan Hawke loses their perspicacity. An example: Winona Ryder applies for a job at a newspaper. She had previously been doing film work, but is now desperately seeking a new job after getting laid off. She is rejected at the newspaper for lacking print journalism experience. Ryder tries to convince the editor that she's really interested in newspapers and quite capable of handling the work. The editor skeptically asks her to define irony. Ryder flails and gives up. She meets Hawke at a coffee shop, asks him, while rolling her eyes, if he can define irony. He rattles off a dictionary definition. She is astounded by his brilliance.

High School sophomores can define irony. Ryder is the valedictorian of her college class, her entire leisure life revolves around the ironic enjoyment of pop culture, and we're to believe that she can't define it, and be impressed that Hawke can?

Another painful scene occurs when Ben Stiller gets into a fight with Ethan Hawke and suddenly becomes incapable of forming coherent thoughts. He's fine everywhere else in the movie, but becomes an idiot when he talks to Hawke. Perhaps he's intimidated by Hawke's staggering intellect? Or perhaps the writers felt the need to dumb him down in these scenes to illustrate that Hawke is smart, and Stiller is not. It's funny because Hawke's rejoinders don't even rise to the level of Monkey Island sword fight, yet Stiller is reduced to sputtering and swearing. Hawke may as well have said, "Ha ha! Now you see that the writers are on my side, and have given me all the good lines! You have no chance to survive!" Ben Stiller returns to his normal ability with words once the scene changes.

This hits on a general theme. For one, movies shouldn't oversell their characters. The problem wouldn't have arisen if everyone weren't talking up what a genius Hawke is. But if you absolutely must have a genius/an astounding artist/the greatest living composer/the Great American Author, never, ever try to show us what a genius he or she is. Unless you, the writer, are the Great American Author writing the Great American Screenplay, any prose you throw out to illustrate what a great author your character is will end up disappointing the audience's expectations (c.f. Finding Forrester). Don't show us the astounding artist's work if you can't actually get an astounding artist to produce it.

For the rest of the movie, I don't know. It felt very self-conscious of its Gen-Xness. That is, it seemed to be trying to speak for a generation, and those sorts of projects always end up feeling simplistic and forced.

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on October 23, 2005 7:08 PM.

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