The Tyranny of Continuity

December 11, 2007 § Leave a comment


By Lars Trodson

I was watching Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof” the other day, and he certainly nailed the look and feel and dynamic of those old movies that I have now come to know as “grindhouse” pictures – those earnest, if not completely competent, cinematic endeavors made by people who may have loved the movies but didn’t necessarily have the craft to make them with the spit and polish we have come to expect out of Hollywood.

There are certain examples of these movies, such as “Death Race 2000” and “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry” and even an old Nick Adams movie about drag racing in the south that I had seen as a kid but can’t remember the name of, that completely captivated me because they were insanely entertaining. I didn’t care then and I don’t care now that they were, as one would say, poorly made. That isn’t the right definition. I liked them, and I didn’t care if they had mistakes in what we now so imperiously call “continuity.”

Somewhere, some time ago, someone had the bright idea that they would begin to catalogue the “mistakes” that we can see in films. You know, “continuity” is whether one of the extras in ‘Spartacus’ is wearing a watch. Why does George Bailey have a wreath over his arm when, in the scene before, he had placed all the wreathes on the counter of the old Building and Loan. Why does the level of liquid in the glasses fluctuate in the glasses on the table during a conversation in…well…any number of movies? That’s why I guess you see so many actors drinking out of empty paper coffee cups now. You don’t have to worry about those liquid levels from shot to shot.

But the truth of the matter is, some of our most beloved movies are a nightmare of continuity. On a purely technical level, “The Wizard of Oz” is a mess. So is “The Departed.” In one scene Jack Nicholson is walking toward the actor playing the young Matt Damon and in the shot from behind he’s smoking a cigarette and when it reverses to the front of Nicholson the cigarette is gone. There’s a bunch of that kind of thing in the movie and nobody cares. I don’t care. That movie is hands down one great achievement.

I couldn’t tell you one mistake in continuity in “American Gangster”, especially in the fact that it didn’t fail to bore me from beginning to end. What can I say?

There is a certain craft, of course, to getting details right. You don’t want some nightmare of continuity to so throw off the audience that they disregard the story. But do I care that the dove that Roy Batty releases at the end of “Blade Runner” flaps up into a clear blue sky when the scene when he releases it in takes place at night in the rain? I do not. I guess this has been fixed in the latest reincarnation of that picture, but even so it was a masterpiece before the amendment.

When we have made our own little pictures here in New Hampshire, the filmmakers I worked with were obsessed with continuity, and I could not have cared less about it. My feeling was if that these little details are noticed, then we lost the audience any way. I thought sometimes it was easier for us to fixate on those problems, the technical ones, that were approachable, rather than concentrating on the hardest part, which is the performances and nuance.

But to say that we will have lost the audience is not so true today. The film geeks out there will kill you if you screw up your continuity — look at those dumb idiots, they’ll say — while at the same time, I would imagine, some of them revere the same European and American classics that all filmmakers do, despite the multitude of technical glitches seen so obviously within the frame.

Even “Citizen Kane”, if you look closely enough, has a few glaring sound synchronization problems that would drive you crazy if you actually cared about them. So the armies of bloggers and writers and film pundits decided some time ago to focus on what they could understand — the “continuity” of a picture. As a result, we have a cascade of sleekly made Hollywood product made by hordes of script supervisors who have made sure the scarves are on exactly right from frame to frame, without caring that the actors wearing those scarves are delivering the most mundane dialogue in wooden positions.

If we didn’t care so much about this, we would be able to concentrate on what we most remember from movies, which is the story and the words and the acting, and if we love a movie, then we will forgive its little idiocyncracies.

Tarantino was right to blow through these petty expectations in his recent “Grindhouse” movie. I only saw the “Death Proof” half, and he caught the continuity problems that were a hallmark of those old cheap pictures perfectly.

But it isn’t Tarantino’s particular form of craftsmanship that we should take away from that movie. It’s rather that he understood such glitches should never, ever get in the way of enjoying a movie. More often than not, we remember and embrace the wildness and rawness of these films, because they were made by enthusiastic people hellbent on doing their own thing, hoping that in the end we would enjoy it.

One thing I think is true, despite what you may think of his own movies, is that Tarantino loves movies, loves people who make them, and loves the idea that you can bring to an audience a kind of entertainment even if you do not have all your gaffing and continuity ducks in a row.

The lesson from “Grindhouse” is to embrace the exuberance of moviemaking, the pure adrenalin joy of it, and forget about worrying whether the cigarette ash is the same length from one shot to the next.

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