As I was sitting in the dark theater, about an hour into the 2 hour, 40 minute film du jour Inception, I began to think about the impending premier of Mad Men. In particular, I was thinking how much I would rather be watching Mad Men than the movie. Now, in all fairness, pit Mad Men against anything and I would rather be watching Mad Men. But the thing I’ve been noticing over the last year or so is that I would hands down, almost always rather be watching television than a movie. Movies used to be high class, the better form of storytelling, but now most films leave me feeling hollow. Whether they were way off the mark or oh so close, I just don’t get as much out of them than most of my favorite shows.
Despite some early enthusiasm on my part for Inception due to my love of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, after reading the (mostly favorable) reviews I could tell how the movie would play for me. I knew that it would be twisty-turny, mumbly-jumbly, and just a-little-too-weird. Any movie that has to invent and then define its own vocabulary is automatically suspect. Though there were parts of the film I found interesting, they were all due to the structure of the narrative. While I think some people found the dream within a dream within a dream confusing, I liked the fact that each dream had its own timeline. The main dream was moving faster than the sub dream which was moving faster than the sub-sub dream. It was interesting from a narrative and editing perspective to see how these three threads were woven together to give the feeling of being simultaneous. I’m not saying it was perfect, but it did engage me on several levels.
The other thing I liked about this overly long feature was the ending. In fact, I liked the ending so much, it redeemed a lot of the movie for me. No spoilers here, but you’ll either love or hate the ending. I know this because I loved it and my friend hated it.
I digress. As a form of storytelling, I don’t think there’s enough time in most movies (even the overly long ones) to really engage me on the level on which I wish to be engaged. After thinking about it for quite some time I have decided that I like stories which are heavy on character without forgetting about the plot. If the characters are blank it’s impossible to invest in the story and if there’s no story the characters have nothing to do. Inception tried to create character by giving Leonardo DiCaprio a dead wife he was grieving over, but it wasn’t quite enough. A movie like Happy -Go-Lucky is all about an irritating character with only incidental activities such as dancing class. There was no drive to the story so all you are left with is an annoying character. Even a movie like Before Sunrise, which is extremely character and dialog heavy has a drive to the story, as you the viewer know that the characters are on a deadline to fall in love.
Movies seem to have a hard time with the character to plot ratio, but television is made for this. And television has gotten so much better over the years at creating interesting characters and storylines. This is no doubt due to the explosion of creative outlets, with cable channels now commissioning their own original content.
Mad Men is a great example of how characters and storylines get to develop over time increasing the investment of the viewer exponentially. It’s also masterful at creating tone, but that is another blog post.
I still have a list of movies I love, but the last movie I really enjoyed was 500 Days of Summer, and that seems like too long between movies that are good. I’ve tried modern films, classic films, foreign films and nothing really works correctly. So these days my Netflix queue has mostly television shows in it and when a movie does appear in my mailbox, I hesitate before watching it. Am I going to end up at the end of this wishing I’d done something else? And sure enough, most of the time, I would have rather been watching Mad Men.