|. . . Seabiscuit|
|. . . 2003-12-30|
Movie Mop-Up: Seabiscuit
Before I became a contented critical cow, back when I was trying to write fiction, I was fascinated by synecdochical technique, and wasted some time trying to devise a story told entirely by implication, with only the set-ups visible, with every punchline delivered offstage.
What I found (and you're probably way ahead of me) is that exclusive reliance on synedoche restricts the author to the thoroughly familiar. A reader can only be trusted to complete a cliché.
In Seabiscuit, I saw my old experiment retried and my old results verified. In place of a traditional exposition, it started with a long series of abbreviated gestures toward foregone conclusions: a certain swell of music, a certain tone of lighting, a certain placement of stars, and you understood that a fortune's about to be made, that disaster's about to strike, that these two people will get married.... Then on to the next Life Incident. The poor schmucks were following "Show, don't tell" to the letter, not realizing that such empty stuff was meant to be told and gotten out of the way to make room for the real movie.
Another Life Incident followed, and another, and I eventually realized that there was never going to be a real movie. These expensive skills, props, and costumes were going to continue to be devoted to showing only what we were trained to think we already knew. Nothing was going to be allowed on film that hadn't already been handled and worn to sepia.
Clearly, the filmmakers had pitched this as not just a horse picture but a real human story with important life lessons, and then, true to their word, had ignored the horse picture in favor of self-help homilies, thus teaching us the important life lesson that it's not always a good idea to stay true to our word.
What kept me in my seat, in that tepid bath, past that point? Perversity, I guess. Just how many little white lies would the filmmakers's consciences take on for the sake of their craft? Ah, the near-psychotically stoic Red Pollard was actually a doe-eyed crybaby who in moments of triumph pumped his arm and shouted "Yes!", just as you and I and Duff-Man. Ah, the great Depression was ended by a new spirit of optimism rather than a change in economic policies: a very timely insight. Ah, races are dull affairs, to be clipped to incoherence; the only cinematic sport is boxing, and the only real way to film it is Raging Bull's. Ah, all underdogs, even underhorses, are cute and small. (As with the similar miscasting of Stanley Yelnats, I mournfully pictured a spavined butt-ugly horse denied its only chance at stardom.)
I would not love you so, Pirates of the Caribbean, loved I not Seabiscuit less. Just for not having a surfer dude show up or a voiceover explain that the sea symbolized freedom to a weary nation, I loved you.
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