Live by Night, Manchester by the Sea, La La Land
Showing vs Telling is one of the six or seven most taught, told, shared and incessantly retweeted, pieces of writing advice. It’s right up there with “Don’t Start Your Book With a Description of the Weather” and “Your Protagonist Must ‘Want’ Something”. Like all writing rules it is more important to learn, and be aware of in your own writing, than to follow religiously. You don’t learn the rules in order to create a set version of writing. You learn the rules so you will know the right time, and are able to come up with an interesting way, to break them. Showing vs Telling is a biggie though. A novel can recover from an ominous thunderstorm or a tranquil harbour on an autumn morning, it can’t survive a writer who constantly pulls the reader out of the text by telling them how a character is feeling or adding explanations to their actions. The reader must be in the moment.
Which brings us to Live by Night, a masterclass in how Telling can ruin a story. Live by Night is constrained by a voice-over, given by the lead character, presumably looking back on the events of the movie from a point after the events portrayed, but with none of the insight or even hindsight such a position might provide somebody beyond an occasional nod to knowing irony. Mostly, the narration does little except tell us what we are seeing. “That’s when I went to prison,” our voice-over narrator will helpfully say, as we watch him being locked in a prison cell. Which isn’t to say a narrator free version of this film would be a classic, just that it would be more interesting, looser, and more in the spirit of its subject. There is a lot to like about this film. The toned down gangsters, the portrayal as the Ku Klux Klan as another racket, the sense of place, all work. Affleck’s attention to detail, the mise en scène, the stylistic flourishes, are all lovely and all deserve to bet set free from the straight jacket of a script that, perhaps worried about telling such a big story, doesn’t have the confidence to show instead of telling.
Manchester by the Sea does a lot of showing. The problem is that a lot of that showing is actually telling. And while Live by Night’s over-explaining can be excused as a misjudgement, Manchester by the Sea is knowingly manipulating the emotions of the viewer in a deeply cynical way. After opening on a tranquil harbour on an autumn morning, Manchester by the Sea introduces us to Casey Affleck’s character.
I’m trying to avoid spoilers here, so forgive the vagueness of this paragraph… Lee Chandler is not a happy man and he isn’t happy because of ‘the bad thing’ that happened to him in the past. This should be enough for the viewer. The past should slowly emerge from the events and conversations of the present. Instead, the terrible event in his past is alluded to a handful of times, (twice by people saying “so that’s the Lee Chandler” in a tone not suited to the event that occurred, but perfectly suited to misleading the viewer). Then we are shown two flashbacks, one to show how badly the event might affect him, and then the event itself. And man do they drag it out to upset you as much as possible. Distressing images, slow-motion, classical music, the works.
If all a flashback does is emphasise the horrible nature of something, the film maker is not showing you what happened they are telling you to be sad. This is manipulation. This is not having the confidence in your audience to imagine how such a terrible thing might affect somebody. Showing everything in the past cheapens the interactions of the present. It underlines the sadness. Showing everything isn’t showing, it’s telling.
Which is a shame, because the stuff in the present is brilliant. Every performance is great. Manchester by the Sea feels like a film that was one test audience who didn’t understand why the man was sad away from greatness.
Which means, by a process of elimination, that La La Land is my film of the week, which is a shame because I wasn’t blown away by this film either. Or at least I wasn’t consistently blown away, or more precisely I was blown away by one or two scenes but they made the rest of the film feel flat in comparison.
The main issue I had with La La Land was that there was nothing at stake. OK, so most musicals at their heart are the story of two kooky kids who just might make a go of it, but there is usually something else going on. Whether it is warring street gangs, the conversion of a silent movie to sound, or teenage peer pressure, there is almost always more plot than ‘two wannabe stars fall in love’. La La Land has many, often great, allusions to other things, but no second story line. Occasionally you just think, so what?
The other issue I had was that it too often felt like a musical for people who don’t like musicals. Yes, there are songs (and some of those songs are absolutely superb) and yes there are moments of magic, but nearly all the drama flows through spoken dialogue. The songs are too often little more than decoration or declaration. They don’t forward the plot as they might. Also, there is no escaping the fact that the leads are not great singers or dancers. The songs often don’t work as well as they might (though it is worth noting that Audition (The Fools Who Dream) works exceptionally well) and the dance routines feel like beginnings that don’t go anywhere. Stone and Gosling never do anything that Cyd Charisse or Gene Kelly would think of as anything other than warming up. Maybe that was the point, but if it was I don’t see the point of that point. If you are going to do a musical, do a musical. Or, if you are going to do something small, don’t start with a gigantic song-and-dance number that everything else fails to live up to.
Ultimately, there is nothing in La La Land to match the sheer joy of seeing Channing Tatum’s No Dames scene in Hail, Caesar! And while part of the joy of that scene was seeing old Hollywood in full flow, there was as much fun to be had from the subversion of the form as the accuracy of the recreation. La La Land’s reinvention of the musical is one that admits defeat – that says there can be a new way of doing musicals, but that this new way will be more cynical and not quite as fabulous as the old way. Call me old-fashioned, but I haven’t given up on the old way just yet.