Elephant in the Room

“Babies don’t come from babies”, Keith Jarrett said when he meant that great art isn’t inspired by other art but by life itself.
This quote shot through my mind tonight while watching the Australian film 2:37 by Murali Thalluri.

I had ordered 2:37 from Quickflix, as reference material for a feature film in post-production I am currently working on in the capacity of co-producer and story consultant. Because of some friends’ recommendations, I was really looking forward to watching young Thalluri’s directorial debut. Imagine my joy when less than forty-eight hours after putting it on my wishlist, the DVD tumbled in the letter box!

Thalluri is obviously infatuated with Gus Van Sant and more specifically ELEPHANT, of which 2:37 is a blatant pastiche. The school, the parallel points of view, the moody light, the school massacre reference, etc. How much more derivative can you be without breaking the law?

But all this could have been forgiven. Other great directors have copied shamelessly, to create something better or at least equally entertaining. I hate to admit but this umpteenth Australian case of the emperor’s new clothes is boring as hell. The best five minutes are the opening scene and this is indeed great cinema: a promising naturalistic build-up of suspense, leading to the discovery of a student’s suicide.

The dead body is not shown in the opening scene and most if not all of the movie’s anticipation (or lack thereof) hinges on that single question: “Who died?” For most of the 98mins running time, the filmmakers are trying to outsmart the audience, ultimately delivering a twist nobody could have possibly seen coming. It may work in novels but it doesn’t in movies, as evidenced by that obscenely successful whodunit whose screen adaptation embarrassed even the die hard fans: THE DA VINCI CODE. Too bad 2:37 didn’t have the same marketing pull to defy any story sense and make hundreds of millions nonetheless.

ANOTHER ELEPHANT: LACK OF DRAMA

The mystery around the identity of the suicide victim in 2:37 is equivalent to that bad whodunit in which a totally uninteresting character we have hardly seen, suddenly shows up with motive and weapon. Even when a whodunit is done well, it often lacks suspense. On this subject Hitchcock once said:

“Mystery is seldom suspenseful. In a whodunit, for instance, there is no suspense, but a sort of intellectual puzzle. The whodunit generates the kind of curiosity that is void of emotion, and emotion is an essential ingredient of suspense.”

That said, 2:37 might still have worked, if only the screenwriter had made the least effort to entertain or excite us along the way. Instead we are witnessing a never-ending tirade of profanities and artful but empty cinematography. Unfortunately I wasn’t impressed either by the performances of the army of young and gorgeous actors. But you can’t blame them, with this poor material.

The film does make various attempts to convey emotion but most of those lack drama. When the main characters talk about themselves and their youthful angst, the effect is theatrical, not cinematic. And until we know and understand the circumstances of these confessions, we will not fully invest emotionally in their content. That is why the ‘talking heads’ in this film don’t work, no matter how desperately the actors try to convince us.

Bottom line: there are some basic screenwriting rules you break at your own risk such as: “you must not deceive the audience.” I suspect Thalluri was considered an auteur and a prodigy, who de facto transcends the principles of storytelling. Here’s my two cents: beginning writers should not try and outsmart their peers, let alone the audience.

WE DON’T GIVE A SHEET

Mysteriously despite all the above, the film was selected for the 2006 Cannes Film Festival where it received a 17 mins standing ovation, effectively paving the way for a successful theatrical release. Or so you would expect. Banking on the festival response, quick international sales were achieved reportedly bringing in three times the film’s production cost.

The reality of the film’s performance at the box office was sobering: at home it hardly grossed $500k. Of course some sources blame the distributor’s bad release campaign. Or the exhibitor’s marginal programming. And finally the audience, for not wanting to open up to the film.

And tomorrow me, for not supporting Australian cinema.

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