One of of the most overlooked films of 2006 (a terrible, terrible year for movies; with redemption only brought by the likes of The Departed, Borat, and Casino Royale) was the noir high school murder mystery Brick. The independently produced film took a story and characters that would normally belong in a Dashiell Hammett novel and deposited them in the setting of an Orange County high school. The movie features the familiar face of Joseph Gordon-Levitt filling the role of the hard-boiled detective unraveling the conspiracy that resulted in the murder of his dame, and he inhabits the role so brilliantly that his performance instantly erased all of the ill will I’d harbored towards him for all those years he spent on Third Rock from the Sun.
While occasional films will address the tense high-school relationships between children and their parents or other authority figures (Rebel Without a Cause, The Breakfast Club, Dead Poets Society) most teen films conveniently relegate adult characters to the periphery, only letting them occasionally affect the events of the film. A variety of techniques can be used to ensure that adults stay out of the picture; they can be on vacation (Risky Business), absent (Napoleon Dynamite), dead (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire*), or simply invisible (Lucas). In Brick, the only adult figure (aside from a brief glimpse of the Pin’s mom) who becomes involved in the narrative in any way is the Assistant Vice Principal Gary Trueman (Richard Roundtree). And even AVP Trueman doesn’t really affect how the story plays out; he inhabits the hard-boiled detective novel equivalent of the local police chief who reluctantly agrees to allow the private detective the freedom of movement he needs to solve his case. And despite a number of scenes taking place during the school day, the high school campus is virtually deserted.** It’s these aspects of Brick that are the most challenging to an audience in terms of willingly suspending their disbelief.
The Film: Brick
The Song: “Sister Ray”
The Artist: The Velvet Underground
Willing suspension of disbelief is essential for any piece of artwork to succeed. In Brick, accepting the complete independence of the teenage characters is not difficult as long as you’re willing to accept the movie as a metaphor for hard-boiled detective novels and noir films of the forties and fifties. As one of the last commenters in the glowing Pajiba review makes clear, it’s not possible for everyone to swallow this premise. And, in the words of the movie’s muscle-bound heavy, Tug (Noah Fleiss), “that’s understandable.”
Personally, I had the same problem with Be Kind, Rewind (2008). I would have avoided it, due to my perennial distaste for Jack Black’s antics, but a few weeks ago I was trapped on an Ontario-bound flight with a dying iPod, so I gave it a chance. After twenty minutes of shaking my head at the implausible actions of the characters, and the surreal nature of the story, I turned it off and stared out the window for the next two hours. I understand that the movie is about the joys of filmmaking, and friendship, and community, but I just couldn’t get past the idea that a series of amateurish videotapes would generate legions of faithful and supportive fans.
Unfortunately, a film’s failure to close the deal in the disbelief department doesn’t always occur in the first few minutes, when it’s easy for a viewer to bail out. The crime thriller Heat (1995), which is one of my favorite movies, imposed a disastrous plot turn near the very end. Val Kilmer’s character, Chris Shiherlis, stops off at a safe house to retrieve his wife, only to be warned away from a police setup by a surreptitious signal that she gives him while standing on the balcony. Mistrusting her, the cops pull him over. Despite the fact that they’ve had him under surveillance for weeks, know his name and exactly what he looks like, and have shot him in the shoulder only hours before, he’s able to give them the slip by presenting them with a phony ID. It’s that simple! That’s the kind of incident that makes you sit up in your seat and gasp “Oh my god, what a load of horseshit!”
It was the same for the Ocean’s Eleven movies. I didn’t mind accepting they myriad of confidence games it took to pull off the original heist, and in the second film I was able to tolerate the idea of raising a house’s foundations by several inches with relatively good humor. But as soon as Julia Roberts’ character Tess began masquerading as Julia Roberts in Ocean’s Twelve (2004), my willingness to believe completely switched off. The movie abruptly changed from a fun bit of fluff to an assault on my sense of reason. Huge inconsistencies in character behavior, such as when all the characters in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’ Chest (2006) were willing to lay their lives on the line for Captain Jack Sparrow, who had repeatedly lied to, betrayed, and in the case of some, attempted to kill them, are inexcusable.
As far as science is concerned, it’s interesting to consider what a viewer will find perfectly plausible within the context of the story, and that which suddenly becomes preposterous and ruins the film. In the X-Men series of films, I had no trouble accepting the premise that genetic mutations could be responsible for any number of fantastical abilities, like regeneration, telepathy, telekinesis, pyrokinesis, and lasers that shoot out of a guy’s eyes that can only be constrained through a ruby crystal. And in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), I didn’t have a problem with the concept of a serum that could rearrange a mutant’s genetic code to render them “normal.” But the idea that the serum could penetrate throughout an entire network of cells and render its effects within a matter of seconds? Hogwash.
Brick, as few films do, does an excellent job of chronicling the physical deterioration of its main character as it barrels towards its denouement. We see Brendon suffer from exhaustion and the effects of repeated beatings, eventually culminating with him coughing up blood, collapsing, and relying on a timely rescue and interlude with the film’s femme fatale Laura (Nora Zehetner). Few films that treat their characters as fully invincible can succeed – there’s no point in worrying about what is happening to them if you know they won’t come to any harm. The Star Wars prequels suffered from this malaise. The catchphrase “nuking the fridge” was born from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) based on Indy’s survival of a nuclear blast by ducking inside a refrigerator, and has come to represent the moment when a film is “deemed to have passed its peak, changing the tone of the series so far that viewers see it as having fundamentally and permanently strayed from its original premise.”
In order to fairly play the game of disbelief, filmmakers must adhere to a consistent set of internal rules. They themselves have the opportunity to establish their own rules, but it must be done quickly. In The Sixth Sense (1999), M. Night Shyamalan did a superb job of establishing what actions could, and couldn’t be performed by a ghost. The Matrix (1999) also did a good job of laying out which actions of the characters could be considered fair, and which couldn’t. While it’s not imperative for every movie to say out loud what the rules are, there is an implicit contract with the audience that once these ground rules are established, they will not be violated. Abandoning them, which often occurs in films with multiple twists at the end, is a first class ticket to an unforgivable disappointment.
I suppose that the studio engineer who was hired to record “Sister Ray” was also confronted with a strong sense of disbelief. The band planned to record the story/song in a single long take, accepting whatever mistakes occurred during this process. Lou Reed recounted the engineer’s words as “I don’t have to listen to this. I’ll put it in Record, and then I’m leaving. When you’re done, come get me.”
*I don’t care what you say, that was totally a high school movie.
** This was an unavoidable aspect of the film’s shoestring production process. It was shot at San Clemente High School on weekends to avoid disrupting classes. And director Rian Johnson actually uses this to his advantage during a splendid cross-campus chase scene.