Monday, February 25, 2008

American Gangster (Mini-) Rant

There is a scene early in Ridley Scott's film in which Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) and his partner uncover a cool million dollars in unmarked cash. Roberts' partner argues that to turn in this money is to become pariahs in the department, that crooked cops don't trust cops that would voucher that much money.

It is a scene of the "tell don't show" variety, and it annoyed me, at least a little.

The scene immediately cuts to the two detectives with the pile of money on the precinct table, counting it out. A window separates them from the rest of the squad, and we can see from the sullen expressions that the reaction of the squad is pretty much what Roberts' partner said it would be.

This seemed a little heavy handed to me, but the tradition of setting up a scene so that we know exactly how we are supposed to interpret the behavior is a staple of Hollywood. So, I'm still at this point only feeling mildly as though I'm being condescended to by the film.

In walks the detectives' lieutenant. Why, he wants to know, are they counting the money out in the open where everyone can see it? Let's just underline the point of this whole scene for those who were out for popcorn in the car scene or are oblivious to the body language of his colleagues. Now I'm starting to feel like the film just doesn't trust its viewers to pay attention.

Roberts and his partner voucher the money and walk through the squad room. Over the hostile rumblings of the other officers present, we hear one observer say (in what sounds like a dub), "Fucking boy scout."

Oh, I get it now. They are mad at him for vouchering the money. I was getting this vibe that something was being communicated about his working relationships through this scene, but it wasn't until the end that I truly understood the point. [Unlike the film, I'm trusting my audience to know how to read my tone.]

My friend and former colleague once told a class we were team teaching to treat exclamation points in writing as if one inherited 100 of them at birth and after one had used them all, they were gone forever. I think implicit in this instruction is the understanding that if one exclamation point isn't going to carry the day, two certainly won't. The second actually weakens the first, making us wonder if the writer doth protest too much.

When the exclamation points or underlining are narrative rather than literal, I call it being led around by the nose by the director or screenwriter. Don't think, such films argue, only assimilate and process the film's thematic sound bites.

Scott is a talented filmmaker with a visual eye and a restrained touch, at least early in his career. Films like The Duellists and Blade Runner have pointed and particular ideological and thematic ponts of view that the films--in their totality--are designed to underscore. But they also have contemplative space, room to breathe and think. American Gangster reads more like a police procedural, more interested in the plot mechanics than the insight into the human condition that the plot might reveal. Characters like D'Hubert and Deckard are fascinating precisely because they are not just "boy scouts" and thus the conflicts between them and their respective antagonists are once which interest us because of what they reveal to us and not just because of a marginal rooting interest in the outcome. Can we really say the same about the characters in G.I. Jane, Gladiator, or American Gangster? Is there anything we learn about the main characters in these films that cannot be encapsulated and underscored in any three minutes of film?

1 comment:

Kenneth R. Morefield said...

Incidentally, how the heck did Ruby Dee get an Oscar nomination for this film?

I think she is a terrific actress--each time I watch "A Raisin in the Sun" I'm more and more impressed with her performance as Ruth Younger, but...she has like two scenes with dialogue in all of "American Gangster."