Thursday, March 16, 2006

What Kept Me From Liking Brick As Much As I Wanted/Expected To

I caught up with one of the last press screenings of Rian Johnson's debut high-school-Hammett excercise Brick in advance of its opening on 3/31. And for the most part, I really liked it. Admired the plotting; loved the meta-noir dialogue. Liked its wide-open, California overcast spaces. Enjoyed the fact that I could clearly see elements of its forebearers in its structure. (Making Marlow into a high school loner who eats his lunch by himself is particularly genius.) I could have done without the occasional glitchy jump-cut, flash-cut dream sequence with allegedly portentous soundtrack runbling- that MTV Generation stuff won't date well- but that's a minor complaint. My problem, and this is a particular talking point of mine, has to do with something that Johnson says in the press-kit interview:

Q: Since there's no caricaturing in the movie, the teenaged charaters are very suitable for the elements of crime and passion. There's an emotional intensity; so much seems at stake for them.

RJ: You know, Hammett was once asked if Sam Spade was based on any particular detective. He answered no, it's based on what every detective would like to imagine himself to be. That's sort of analagous to our movie's relationship to real high school; it's not the way high school is, but it's the way high school feels.

When you're in high school, things don't feel- they didn't, for me- flippant and silly. A lot of high school shows and movies seem to me to have a very adult perspective on high school, the perspective of someone who is out of that world and is now seeing it in a slightly condescending manner. Once you get beyond it, it's easy to forget how you once were completely encased in its logic. Whereas when you're actually in it, and your head is completely encased in this microcosm, it's your world and it's a world you have to survive. And things seem, if not life-or-death, very important and mythical. The people you know and the dynamics of your relationships seem hyper-real. We tried to summon that here. The level of intensity that's in Brick equates to the level of intensity that I think a lot of us felt in high school.

I probably didn't need to put in that quote, but I just love it so much. I recently critiqued a story in my fiction workshop about a high school superhero, and wrote in the margins something like, "of course, when you're in high school, you think everything that might go wrong with your life is the end of the world; what I like about this story (and Buffy, for that matter) is that, if something does go wrong for these high school kids, it really is the end of the world."

I'm also writing my thesis on Battle Royale, which I think is pretty clearly (intentionally or otherwise; it's really none of my concern) an allegory for high school graduation. My line of argument is, basically, that it phrases high school in terms of a what's in all respects (contrived circumstances, kids acting like adults, emotionally heightened, ultraviolent) an especially cinematic narrative, and that phrasing it in that way suggests that cinematic narrative forms function in ways really similar to Jung's ideas about archetypes and the collective unconscious.

[What's great, too, is that elsewhere in the production notes Johnson mentions how Miller's Crossing was a key influence on this project in its interaction with classic genre tropes. (He also mentions Man Who Wasn't There, a movie which I find vastly inferior and far more tongue-in-cheek.) That's a great example, I think, because I've always felt that Miller's Crossing was an especially Jungian work, in how it attempts to make an entire cohesive movie out of fragments of cinematic memory.]

All of which is to say, that the idea of a movie which attempts to convey the (at the time) profound emotional content of high school through the device of a classical cinematic narrative form was really, really appealing to me.

Except that: Brick barely has any high school in it at all. It almost seems at times that Johnson goes out of his way to avoid showing his characters interacting in a high school environment. It's a barely visible framework, but there's no interaction between the plot and the day-to-day lives of the characters. By reducing the high school content to a couple scenes involving lockers, a scene in the library and a couple in the parking lot, and a couple moments backstage at the drama club (I' m deliberately leaving out the principle's office scene; we'll get back to that), Johnson cuts off the characters from their surroundings. (Yeah, I know, a lot of the exterior scenes, especially between Brendan and Brain, and all the scenes on the football field, are at school. But they could be anywhere. They aren't tied to any actual high school activity.) In the library, at least, there's some banter about "zero period" and bus routes, but it's not nearly enough. These kids can come and go as they please (and Johnson doesn't concern himself with the particulars of cutting); this isn't a life that kids are leading along with their high school existence, it's a life that they're leading instead of it. (One of my favorite throwaway moments in Buffy is at the beginning of the third season- "Faith, Hope, and Trick," specifically, when the characters eat a picnic off campus because they're seniors and they can do that now; things like that anchored the to its setting. The real reason Buffy never got over leaving high school was that it never found real lives for their characters to lead afterwards.) So, that's what specifically disappointed me about Brick: the high school noir I was salivating in anticipation of turned out to have at best a passing interest in high school.

As for the scenes with the Pin's "comically" oblivious mother, pouring apple juice like her son isn't a drug lord: again, don't make a joke about how little these characters have to do with the lives they're living.

And then there's the music. Maybe this is a licensing thing, but can anyone explain to me why, out of an entire cast of high-school age kids, only one of them ever listens to pop music for any length of time? It just gets back to the major problem with the movie: Johnson being so (justifiably) in love with his plot and dialouge that they become the entire movie. And I wouldn't have minded at all, if he had been making a straight noir. Maybe next time he should.

7 Comments:

Blogger Gartland said...

Agree with you re: Brick and its high school setting. Seems like it could've had zero connection with high school and still have been the same movie.

I thought the lingo was a little gimmicky. Then again, I loved 90 percent of Sin City, so take that for what it's worth.

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