in praise of subtlety

A few days ago, after I’d escaped work, the damp chill that has settled over Beijing for a week now not being overly conducive to sitting in the garden with a book as I usually prefer, I sat down to watch a couple of films. What I really appreciated about these two films is that they had a certain quality that seems to have vanished from Hollywood.


Hollywood no longer tugs at the heartstrings. It takes a heavy duty chain, ties one end firmly to the heartstrings and hooks the other up to a high-powered winch, and tears the heartstrings out with extreme violence. Hollywood no longer trusts our intelligence to read between the lines or correctly interpret understatment. Instead it takes all the gory details, heats them up white hot, and sears them into our eyeballs, you know, just to make sure we don’t miss anything.

But subtlelty makes for a vastly more powerful film. What gives Shooting Dogs its force is that the horror and violence of the Rwandan genocide happens mostly off-screen, and appears on-screen only from a distance or behind a conveniently-placed bush. Most of Apocalypse Now is a quiet boat ride up a river, allowing time to properly develop the psychological play. I would argue that the battle scenes in Platoon are almost purely incidental and the real action, Charlie Sheen’s character’s psychological journey, happens in the quiet moments. Each of these films could’ve been Just Another Flick About Some Big Historic Event We’re All Conflicted About. Instead, they tell their stories not through events on the screen, but through allowing the characters to present themselves and develop as the story unfolds, and allowing the development of the characters to unfold the story. In other words, they engage the mind and the true, deeper emotions. We want to smash the French captain to a bloody pulp not because the soundtrack or his black hat tell us he’s a Bad Guy, nor because he does anything in particular (indeed, very little is actually done in Shooting Dogs), but because the film has brought us in to the refugees’ situation and gotten us emotionally involved. We feel the full range of emotions all the characters caught in the mission school feel not because the soundtrack tells us “You must feel despair now!” or “You must feel rage now!”, but because when we watch Shooting Dogs, on an emotional level we are in the mission school with the Belgian peacekeepers, priests, students and refugees.

Such films are rare.

And the two I watched the other day that sparked off this little ramble? The first was Casablanca, and the second was Roman Polanski’s Ghost Writer.

What I loved most about Casablanca is that apart from a brief introduction to the time, place and general situation and a flashback to Paris just before the German invasion, the characters are simply presented as they are, where they are, when they are. There is no melodrama, no cliché, and the soundtrack is possessed of considerably more subtlety and tact than your average sledgehammer. The characters are not grossly oversimplified Good Guys, Bad Guys and The Love Interest. Instead they are presented as highly complex people, and it is left to us to try and make sense of their personalities and motivations through their actions and interactions. Indeed, of all the main characters, I think about the only one whose motivations are entirely clear is Major Strasser, and even he is not some simple stereotype of the evil Nazi. But about the only thing I find clear about Bogart’s Rick Blaine and Rains’ Louis Renault are that they are both playing roles. But why? Partly to help them survive and navigate a rather chaotic situation, partly, in Blaine’s case, as an emotional defense. But then the ending raises still more questions. These two who could not be described as friends so much as rival players who merely cooperate when they need each other or the services the other can provide ride off into the sunset together with a common objective. How did that happen? Force of circumstance is not enough of an explanation.

And Roman Polanski. He can make some really good films (The Pianist) and some absolute rubbish (Macbeth). Ghost Writer belongs in the really good category. Like Casablanca the characters are presented simply as they are, where they are, when they are, and no judgements are made. A lot of background information is necessary to understand the story, but that is slowly fed in through conversations between the characters, and done so in a way that gradually increases the tension. Like Shooting Dogs, most of the action takes place off-screen and is revealed indirectly through the actions and reactions of the characters. And the ending, I felt, quite nicely left everything but the ghost writer’s life wide open. And one thing I found to be quite a nice little touch is that Ewan McGregor’s ghost writer remains unnamed throughout the film.

So why do so few films take this quiet approach of engaging the viewers’ mind and deeper emotions? Am I the only one who feels insulted by such nonsense as Avatar? Can we please get some more intelligent film-making, or am I asking too much?

About the Author


A Kiwi teaching English to oil workers in Beijing, studying Chinese in my spare time, married to a beautiful Beijing lass, consuming vast quantities of green tea (usually Xihu Longjing/西湖龙井, if that means anything to you), eating good food (except for when I cook), missing good Kiwi ale, breathing smog, generally living as best I can outside Godzone and having a good time of it.

2 thoughts on “in praise of subtlety

  1. That last one was probably a rhetorical question, but, yeah, you’re asking too much. When newspapers have to be written on a sixth-grade reading level because so many people can’t or won’t read above that, why would they make films that engage people’s minds?

    Melodrama has become the norm not because it’s worth watching but because it’s easy watching. Between the ever-shortening attention spans and need for immediate gratification, subtlety just isn’t loud, flashy, or sexy enough. Film as a form of escapism is not necessarily bad, but it has its place.

    I do have to wonder, though, did the hearstring-jackhammering film industry answer the call of an emotionally-shallow population, or did they create it?

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