• Drunk Napoleon

    I prefer to think of this kind of thing as the Howard Hawks definition of a good movie. He defined a good movie as “three good scenes and no bad ones”, which I’ve always thought of as a good way to explain movies I thought were well-made and likable without being, like, transcendent; sometimes these movies have some brilliant tiny aspect to them that elevates them to above-average.

    Which is a roundabout way of getting to my particular example of “going out-of-book”, which is the movie Death At A Funeral, a competent comedy with a lot of talented people both behind and in front of the camera, where everyone turns in a solid performance but doesn’t do anything too surprising… except it also has Peter Dinklage’s greatest performance, as the gay man blackmailing the protagonist into giving him some of his inheritance.

    On paper, he should be the villain, but Dinklage plays him with utter sincerity – he’s heartbroken that his lover has apparently abandoned him in death, and genuinely believes he’s got some signifier of their relationship coming, which only makes his character and what happens to him even funnier. A brilliant movie would have doubled-down on this, but Death At A Funeral is otherwise straightforward and unsurprising, so we’ll never see that.

    • Conor Malcolm Crockford

      A lot of Dinklage’s gift is his total sincerity with fairly absurd characters – his character in Elf is one giant dwarf joke but he plays him (and its written) as a guy who’s a hard badass, good at what he does, and he doesn’t believe that he has to put up with Buddy right now and his stupid questions.

      • Drunk Napoleon

        “giant dwarf joke”

        But you’re right – there’s an SNL skit going around Facebook of him playing an absurd singer interrupting a Sopranos-esque conversation, and it works so well because he totally commits and plays the guy like he does this every night, perfectly moving and enunciating.

        • SPACE PANTS!

          There’s another great sketch from that ep where he’s the concierge at an undersea hotel, and dead bodies keep floating past the guest rooms, and he’s 100% committed to removing the bodies. “How are all my best employees drowning today?”

          • Drunk Napoleon

            “DID YOU SEE MY PANTS? OH WAIT, YOU MISSED ‘EM. MY PANTS ARE A TOUR OF THE SOLAR SYSTEM.”

      • He’s possibly the only commendable thing about the spectacular disaster that is Tiptoes, since he wholly commits to his role as… erm… a French radical. Fucking hell, that movie.

        He also has the same birthday as me, which I believe is the source of all his powers.

  • Miller

    “Many iconic directors make a habit of working out of book, but all of them are aware of the book.”

    The Coens work a lot by mixing strategies, I think — Barton Fink and Burn After Reading purposefully steer the viewer into following one part of the book and then make hard turns into another. But they’ll go out of book too, the bear man in True Grit comes to mind (literally, I don’t think he’s in Portis’ novel). Anyway, great article.

    • pico79

      One thing they do very, very well is plan their movies around how people usually watch movies, and then work hard to undermine that. It’s one of the reasons they deepen so much on re-watch: we’re literally unprepared for them the first time through. The classical structures are slightly askew, the climaxes are delayed or displaced, the point of view is wrong, the stated morals are at odds with the action, the symbolic language contradicts itself, and all these things “work” because they’re woven into a strategy that makes more sense after we have time to digest it. The best way to go off-book is to know the book backwards and forwards, and to use that against us.

      • Miller

        Oh wow, I never thought of this undermining philosophy and that’s great (and interestingly, I think their least-regarded films of Intolerable Cruelty and Ladykillers are also the ones that are most on-book). Even something like Raising Arizona, which before its opening credits runs what is essentially a short film that could’ve been extended into an entire movie, fucks with form and structure in ways that get the viewer off balance. I’m going to have to think on this more.

    • The Ploughman

      Thank you! I had a couple mentions of the Coens that got dropped because you’re totally right – they work outside the book but with complete awareness and control of when and how they do it No Country for Old Men is a movie that does it the most boldly (like killing one of your main characters offscreen) but A Serious Man imho does it the most successfully.

      ETA: And of course NCfOM is also a case of using a different book to start with.

      ETA2: Just skip this comment and go straight to @Pico79’s

      • Miller

        And not to mention NCFOM’s ending, which is like reaching checkmate by leaving the game three moves early but having actual goons and bishops surround your opponent.

  • Great article, and one that I feel I could usefully refer to when attempting to explain why I love certain kinds of movies in future. I’ve never really known how to express myself when people query why I like horror films (despite not being fussed about whether they’re scary or not) or general trashy nonsense, but a lot of it is this willingness to go “out of book” – I’m far more likely to encounter something genuinely unexpected in a low-budget genre film than in any mainstream blockbuster and there’s a thrill in that. Obviously a lot of horror films do follow a familiar pattern, but that makes it all the more exciting when one of them takes a bizarre turn and finds new ground in familiar territory.

    • Miller

      Yeah, low-budget movies go out of book more frequently, in part (I am guessing) because they don’t have to answer to the same level of investors but also in part because they don’t have the money to stay on-book.

      • And in some glorious cases, they abandon the book so completely that I’m not sure anyone involved can even read.

      • Son of Griff

        Also marketing. In promotingeting a film the “off book” element is something that generates something unique about your film that generates discussion. It’s a hook that gets a film noticed and discussed, a tributary element of value to the film that extends beyond the mere experience of watching it.

  • DJ JD

    “Knocking over the pieces and replacing them with Lucky Charms is a valid move, unless you were wanting to see a game of chess.” Great line in a great article.

    You very neatly described why religious movies are such dicey propositions, to make or to watch. The filmmaker has three choices: make something that appeals to your target audience at a presuppositional level (that may well have nothing whatsoever to do with the actual religious texts concerned), make something that sticks so closely to the book that it doesn’t have any room to breathe at all or make something that is generally respectful of the text that nevertheless goes a bit, as you say, out of book.

    The problems with the first two ideas should be obvious: the first one makes pablum, and usually toxic pablum that makes people worse for having seen it. The second makes for sealed boredom in a can for practically everyone, including the people making it.

    Things get interesting with the third option, though, but the problem is that isn’t not necessarily interesting in the ways that the filmmakers intend. Filmmakers almost never know as much about the Great Big Thing they’re “creatively enhancing” as they think they do, but they’re the filmmakers so we see what they show us. (See also: George Clooney’s Great Big Thoughts On Politics.) I haven’t seen Noah because I avoid this genre, and the reason I avoid this genre is because there are so many movies out there that the directors… I mean, they aren’t “wrong” in the sense that I disagree with what they’re showing me, they’re “wrong” in the sense that I wouldn’t discuss the subject in question with someone who thought that. This shows up in the pablum, too: I had the misfortune of being in the room while my brother’s in-laws all sat down to watch The Ultimate Gift, and his mother-in-law in particular seemed puzzled and frustrated by why I was so grouchy afterwards. (If you haven’t seen it, Wikipedia that shiznit; it’s actually pretty amazing.)

    All that to say: I view “the book” as something of a history of mistakes, the idea being not to repeat those mistakes. It can be interesting to see someone go out of book, but it usually signifies a mistake–and when the subject is something (like religion) that many, many smart people have thought about for a very, very long time, a modicum of humility is appropriate because the filmmaker can safely assume he or she is traipsing through a minefield.

    • Miller

      “George Clooney’s Great Big Thoughts On Politics” sounds like the worst Richard Scarry book ever.

    • The Ploughman

      First off, thanks for the kind words! I wikied that film and holy cow I don’t know where to start with that. I’d love to see that same plot – all ninety strands of it – turned over to Trey Parker see what comes out.

      “… they aren’t “wrong” in the sense that I disagree with what they’re showing me, they’re “wrong” in the sense that I wouldn’t discuss the subject in question with someone who thought that.”

      Can you clarify? Is there an instance of a religious themed film where you’ve liked the approach? I think Noah has that thoughtfulness about it – supposedly Aronofsky has wanted to make the film since Pi and has wondered about the character of Noah since seventh grade. It’s all the more surprising since the first half of the movie doesn’t really tip that thoughtfulness and looks more like what I expected the film to be – respectful, but in that intellectual, borderline condescending way (“We’re telling the story of Noah but we’re adding some scientific details because we’re too smart for myths. Also rock monsters. Smart rock monsters.”) that for some reason sends the blind faithful to the overtly condescending schmaltz like The Ultimate Gift (seriously, child with leukemia? And there’s so much more movie after that!).

      But the back half gives a lot to chew on while keeping to the original theme of the story (and killing the frigging rock monsters). I’m kinda disappointed in the idea anybody who would prefer two hours with a Noah who’s so pious he earns the privilege of watching every asshole on earth die (because that would be us on the boat, dontcha know, we helped out at the soup kitchen that one time). The Noah of Noah struggles to understand why he’s so special and to interpret the will of a God who seems keen on ending humanity and that’s a much more interesting idea.

      • DJ JD

        I should reiterate that I haven’t seen Noah, and probably would at some point. It’s not incredibly high on my list because like I said I’ve largely given up on the genre, but I’m a fan of Arnofsky and I share his interest in that particular story. (If it doesn’t end with him drunkenly exposing himself to his sons, though, I’ll be pretty disappointed–that is not a weird footnote, it’s a crucial component to the story.)

        A religious-themed film where I *liked* the approach… Hmm. I mean, I liked parts of the approach in a lot of films, right? I appreciate parts of what Last Temptation of Christ was going for, but showing him collaborating with the Romans to kill Jewish rebels is just…wow. I mean, way, way, way off. (I don’t hold with the Apocrypha personally, but they had to have been able to do better than *that*.) It happens again and again, though: Jesus leading the mob to the temple does capture the chaos of the day with the Sicarii and the like–but completely misunderstands Jesus’ relationship to them. (This is not drawn from some deep academic study, mind; this is in the text itself.)

        It goes on and on, and it points to the deeper issue in that movie of wanting to show a “fully human” Jesus – an idea I find highly intriguing, and a major point of tension for anyone who has ever taken this seriously – but then, again, advertising their own issues by showing a human Jesus that is deeply inconsistent with a great deal of the in-text material we have on him. The protests over that movie – I’m old enough to remember those! – were super derpy and plenty of them hadn’t seen the movie, sure–but it’s not like Reformed theologians were flocking behind it either.

        It’s like that with a lot of movies. I appreciated what Gibson was going for with Passion of the Christ, but, again, he missed some very basic in-text explanations that were highly relevant to the story he was telling. (In that case, it doesn’t help that he was drawing heavily from a Catholic mystic who came a great deal later, like the bit with the scourging–I’m not sure Scorsese wouldn’t have done better to just set the novel aside, too, on the point.) I’m steeped enough in this culturally to see where Gibson was coming from, but flattening the Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes and the rest into one lump group called “the Jews” was just asking for the charges of anti-Semitism: taken as a single group, they might as well have been orcs. The text itself is very careful to keep them straight, for a wide variety of highly relevant reasons. I enjoyed Prince of Egypt, but I haven’t seen it since it came out; I’m guessing it probably fell more under option #2: stick to the text like glue.

        Anyway, getting back to your question, I suppose the approach I personally would most like to see more of is para-religious stuff like Ben-Hur. Give us the setting and context of the day in a more accessible manner than academic deep-dives, and *maybe* – very cautiously – cross paths with a recognizable name or two. We form these comfy, post-Disney-liberal-humanism frameworks and tropes for how we approach ancient texts (all of them, not just religious ones) and it’s frankly always a disservice to the texts, and to the people whose lives informed them. And this very nicely gets around the fact that filmmakers almost always studied filmmaking and not theology, history, archeology, etc.

        (That said, there is a movie about the book of Jonah in my head that is probably basically unfilmable but that I’d love to see. There’s so, so much going on in that book, and properly done it could be just entertaining as all get out.)

        • Babalugats

          You won’t be disappointed. I found Noah to be pretty interesting theologically, but a little too long and too dry to be great entertainment. It’s depiction of creation is really beautiful, though.

          I agree with you on Last Temptation Of Christ. A human depiction of Jesus is interesting, but an inarticulate violent Jesus who is unsure of his message isn’t really the same man. I feel like this happens in a lot of more liberal biopics, there’s a desire to depict these figures as being just like us, almost as a backlash against the great men theory of history. But they weren’t just like us, they were different, and that’s what is interesting about them. I actually think this movie focuses much more on the metaphysical aspects of Christ, his divinity and the necessity of his sacrifice. And downplays his importance as a philosopher and as a historical figure. I find other aspects of the movie compelling, and I’m not too sensitive about any of this stuff, so I’m still a fan, but I’ve definitely got mixed thoughts.

          Also, Jonah would make a great movie if someone was willing to give it the full Serious Man treatment. Some of the more interesting aspects of that story are worked into Noah, and the film is better for it.

          • Miller

            Wait, Noah’s ark brings on a Frankenstein’s monster made entirely out of dead dicks?

          • Babalugats

            That’s harsh, but yeah, Russell Crowe is in this.

  • BurgundySuit

    Hey hey, it’s Year of the Month (from an idea by Elizabeth Lerner)! Here’s just a few of the things you can write about:

    https://letterboxd.com/films/popular/year/1968/size/large/
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1968_in_music
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1968_in_literature

    And here’s who’s gonna be writing!

    September 7th: Wallflower: Switched-On Bach
    September 8th: SCB0212: The Prisoner
    September 11th: Vomas: The Swimmer
    September 12th: Pico79: The Queen
    September 13th: BurgundySuit: Chartbusting!
    September 14th: The Ploughman: High School
    September 15th: Belated Comebacker: Rosemary’s Baby
    September 18th: Drunk Napoleon: Yellow Submarine
    September 19th: John Bruni: Faces
    September 21st: Wallflower: Bullit
    September 22nd: Gillianren: The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit
    September 25th: Bhammer100: Prescription: Murder
    September 26th: Miller: Hell in the Pacific
    NO DATE: Son of Griff: Once Upon a Time in the West
    NO DATE: Julius Kassendorf: Vixen

    • Did you get my essay?

      • BurgundySuit

        Yup!

  • The Ploughman

    Update: I somehow neglected to include the Radiolab link that’s referenced. I’ve added it up there and right here. It’s a portion of the larger episode called “Games” (back when they did multi-part episodes).

  • pico79

    One of my favorite out-of-book moments, just because it jarred me so hard and made me laugh and think about the film-ness of the film I was watching, is when the credits play about midway through Blissfully Yours, like someone trying to play a classic opening/closing gambit during the midgame of a particularly weird chess match. It’s such an otherwise naturalistic movie until that point – and afterwards, too, albeit in a lazy summer day kinda way – but Weerasethakul doesn’t let you succumb to the dream even as he’s dangling it in front of you. Meta touches like that can range from sublime to ridiculous, but it works here so well because of the way sleep/wakefulness is part of his game.

  • Son of Griff

    Great article! One of the early great discoveries that I made regarding movies was the rule breaking quality, that they follow a logic beyond one’s experience. When I first saw LAWRENCE OF ARABIA when I was 8 for example, I was completely floored when, only 10 minutes after being introduced as the the prototypical sidekick, the protagonist’s guide gets killed by Omar Sharif. Throughout the movie the plot continued to throw monkey wrenches into what I had known as the adventure movie format, but even though I was completely lost I was transfixed. It was my first experience dealing with a story in which incident seemed set by a mix of the arbitrariness of fate and the consequences of a character’s actions and decisions. The point is, i sensed through Lawrence that this reflected the way that the world work, that it was exposing me to a “grown up” world of experience that storytelling had concealed from me.

    As a corollary to this, the concept of going out of book lies as much with the experience of the viewer as it does with the text itself, An article cited here a few weeks ago by Benedict Anderson, discussing the accessibility of Weerasethakal’s movies to rural audiences in Thailand, suggests that cultural practices that appear avant-garde to the educated Westerner might be commonly understood outside of that context. Likewise, I think that what appears inexplicably novel to one’s younger self gains acceptance as you get older. “The Book” is subject to laws of temporal and spacial relativity.

    As for the book working or not, I do get frustrated with a particular denizen of the arts scene who praises weirdness for its own sake. Present company here excepted, I find discussions of David Lynch with his fans frustrating, because they don’t specifically understand the context and theoretical assumptions underlying his work. As @pico79:disqus suggests, you must know the rules before you break them. I wouldn’t call Lynch a diletente by any means, but his aesthetic brings out an emotional response to those who try to cultivate a de-centered weirdness as a personality quirk.

    • Having been turning over Twin Peaks: The Return in my head ever since it ended, one of the things I was just thinking about is definitely just how much Lynch (and Mark Frost) were able to get away with in terms of going out of book. (I didn’t think of it in these terms, but they apply perfectly.) I’m not gonna spoil anything, but in general there’s a disregard for tight plotting that would infuriate a lot of people who aren’t on his wavelength to begin with (and occasionally even some of those who are), and many storylines develop and conclude via detours, digressions, longueurs, unanswered questions, and random events that arrive completely out of the blue. More than almost any major filmmaker, I think, Lynch can afford to just follow the ideas he “catches” instead of commonly understood rules and still be celebrated for it (others, like his similarly larger-than-life contemporary Terrence Malick, have not been so lucky recently), and I think he’s able to do it – and it is ultimately not just weirdness for its own sake – because, first of all, most if not all those ideas are just that powerful, and communicate, however abstractly, some kind of truth and insight (to put it another way, they come from an honest place, from a desire to share something, not just trip you up); and second of all, Lynch is shrewder about structure and things like set-up and payoff than he may let on, and they can appear and have an outsized impact precisely because you haven’t really been anticipating them any more at this point. His well-known incredible precision in things like sound, lighting, and direction of actors (down to the tiniest details of body language) also serves to confirm that he knows exactly what he wants to do. That doesn’t mean he succeeds every single time, but at least there’s that rock-solid foundation.

      I think I had a similar experience with Pulp Fiction, which I saw when I was 10, to the one you did with LOA. I hadn’t seen a whole lot of ordinary crime dramas and action flicks to understand exactly what conventions Tarantino was bending or breaking, but somewhere between Mia finding the drugs in Vince’s jacket, Butch and Marsellus finding themselves at the mercy of Zed, and “Oh man I shot Marvin in the face”, there came a clear understanding: this is a movie that thrives on accident and turns of fate (pre-scripted, sure, but that didn’t matter), and has such conviction in what it’s doing that it becomes gloriously liberating, rather than just an annoying pile of random things happening on a whim.

      • Son of Griff

        With any artist I admire, I sense that they have a particularly strong sense of a commonly used set of rules to wrestle their intuitive inspirations to a disciplined form. While Lynch’s hallucinations are often a bit obscure to my liking, I have no problem recognizing the training that go into their execution. To be charitable towards the fans I just admonished, I’d say that at least some part of their appreciation rests with they the bravery in which he places his dark visions and the subjectivity of his symbolic order for people to accept or reject.

        And I can totally see audiences having my LAWRENCE OF ARABIA experience with PULP FICTION, or MULHOLLAND DRIVE for that matter

  • Conor Malcolm Crockford

    I dunno, Noah is wildly underrated – its not perfect at all, but its so bleak and strange, and it actually takes the question of God’s will deadly seriously.