Have you ever wondered what Biff was thinking throughout the Back to the Future series? I mean, the guy is constantly put down whenever he finds a modicum of success in life, and he’s reduced to an indentured servant by the end of the first film. I’ve always been interested in unique perspectives like Biff’s, and film is the perfect medium to experiment with views like Biff’s and other unique storytelling angles. Several of the films I’ve watched recently bucked convention in interesting ways.
I’ve always been a big fan of Joss Whedon. It’s the things that everyone likes about his work; the way he portrays powerful young females, his skill at writing for an ensemble cast, and his snappy scripts filled with pop culture references. One of his less popular works, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, was actually my introduction to his filmography. It focuses on the titular Dr. Horrible, a bumbling supervillain who pines after his rival’s girlfriend. He is clearly meant to represent the underdog, but only for the first 2/3s of the movie. One of my favorite things about Dr. Horrible is that the protagonist is not meant to be rooted for the entire time. He may start as the charming genius with some misguided views, but once he realizes that what he really wants is to take over the world, all pretense of love and rivalry fall away. In the final scene, when Horrible sings that he won’t feel a thing, he really means it. What started as a nerdy love story showed itself to be a film that was actually about the nature of evil. When allowed to take over his life, Dr. Horrible doesn’t mope or try to reject his supervillain life. Instead, he puts on the black gloves and the red coat, and he takes his seat with the other villains, a seat which he has wanted for longer than anything else. It’s the strength of Joss Whedon’s script in addition to Neil Patrick Harris’s dead stare in that final scene that really sell the film’s tonal shift, and it’s impossible to rewatch Dr. Horrible without thinking about the “hero’s” true goals now. What could have easily been a bland ending where Horrible gets the girl and discovers his inner hero is ignored In favor of this darker, much more thought-provoking ending.
Even the movement and use of the camera has been boiled down to a science, which several directors like to experiment with. Richard Linklater’s first film ever, Slacker, is one of my favorite examples of changing how one sees a film and its characters using just the camera. Although it’s credited as the start of the independent film movement of the 1990s, my greatest takeaway from Slacker is how the camera becomes a character itself. There is no linear narrative here; the camera lazily follows around several 20-something characters in Austin as they go about their day. Whenever I think a particular plot point is going somewhere, the camera abandons that location and moves somewhere else. It made me feel like what I was watching wasn’t actually important enough to dwell on, and that there’s always something completely different around the corner. Instead of building tension and then releasing it with a climax, Slacker presents tension, and then abandons it for more peaceful scenarios. There’s a scene in the middle of the film where a group of people living in an apartment supposedly discover their friend’s terrorist plot, and the camera switches to their oblivious roommate and his benign shopping trip. By simply keeping the viewer away from the action, there essentially is none. Technically, nothing happened to those kids and their friend, because we didn’t see it. I had never considered my role as the watcher to be that of a storyteller before Slacker, but shooting the film with so few cuts makes it an even more relaxing, mellow experience.
Coincidentally, The Cabin in the Woods is another film with the Joss Whedon touch that aimed to show a different perspective. In this case, the entire horror genre is deconstructed by making the writers and directors actual characters in the film. Scientists craft the perfect haunted house to lure unsuspecting teenagers into falling into horror film archetypes, only to have their blood sacrificed to the old gods living beneath the cabin. In most horror films, the two-dimensional characters rarely act with any level of self-awareness or knowledge that they are falling into obvious traps. The jock and the virgin have sex in the forest, the black guy dies first, and someone always suggest that everyone split up. This movie takes that idea and puts the twist on it that these characters aren’t actually their stereotypes. The jock is well-read, the virgin has had plenty of sex, and so on. But in this cabin, they’re all pawns in the scientists’s master plan. Through traps and subtle nudges, they force these kids to be horror movie characters, and the film becomes about breaking free from fate. In the climactic scene, the two surviving kids throw middle fingers to tradition, and break free from convention and cliché.
It’s fun to tear apart the motivations and meanings behind our favorite films. If I were to ever make a movie, all I know is that there would have to be a scene in a classroom. The students, lost in their own thoughts, begin to process the world around them. One of them is lusting after the girl in the short skit in the front row. That girl is thinking about that night’s homework, and how she plans to find time to watch the latest episode of her favorite TV show. In another corner is the lonely jock, who just wants to break free from convention and become a dancer. Instead of relegating these characters to their stereotypical archetypes, I’d let them be free, dynamic characters. Directors that are willing to step out of the realm of predictability and reframe tradition create some of the best works of art in the modern cinematic medium.