The 'sharp' test for films
I like adult films. There, I’ve said it. Can anyone else remember a time when the term ‘adult film’ referred to something other than the ‘stroke flicks’ you pick up from behind the curtained section of your local video store?
I for heartily bored with what passes for movie entertainment these days – there’s more formulas than a chemistry lab, fewer real adult themes than you'll find at a corner bar, and better acting on most soccer fields after a heavy tackle.
Your video store has movies categorised for everything. Everything that is, except for one category that for me is the most important: movies that makes you think, instead of making you want to put your foot through the screen. If, like me, you want something celluloidal that doesn’t insult your intelligence, then the one important question when choosing a movie should be, ‘Is it sharp?’
Sharp, (shahp), a. having a keen edge or fine point; terminating in a point or edge; biting, piercing; acute, keen-witted; alert, penetrating …
So as my video store won’t do the job, I’ve sorted out my own ten working rules for finding movies that are sharp – or at least won’t blunt an evening’s entertainment with the usual dross. As a public service to help you avoid wasting valuable minutes of your life watching crap, I offer them here for your guidance. Thank me later.
- The ten-minute test. This is most important: If it don’t grab you in ten, let it hit the bin.
- Plot. The three most important things in a movie are plot, plot and
big tiahem, plot. As Tarantino should have said, ‘If it don’t have a plot, then it ain’t worth squat.’
Aristotle identified nearly two-and-a-half-thousand years ago what made a good plot, but the news still hasn’t got to LA: in two words, dramatic conflict. Without a decent dramatic conflict, there is no plot, and you fail on the Rule One Test.
The only thing better than a good plot is a really good plot. The only director who can break this rule is Fellini. Why? Because he can.
- No coming of age movies. Just because the entire population of the planet over the age of fifteen passed through puberty once doesn’t mean we have to share every one of those experiences. Who cares what they’re a metaphor for.
- No movies starring George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Nicole Kidman or anyone from the Sheen family. Or pop stars (with the exception of ‘Hard Day’s Night.’ That pretty much rules out at least half of Hollywood’s movies, and clearly rules out Oceans Eleven, Twelve or (God help us) Thirteen. Having said that, ‘Snatch’ was sharp – possibly because Pitt was both mercifully unintelligible and got punched a lot. Didn’t save ‘Fight Club’ though.
- Anything with David Mamet involved is worth a look. He might insult your sensibilities, but never your intelligence.
- No high-school romances/sports stories/problems in class etc., etc., etc. Yawn. See rule 3 above. If it’s set in a high school, let it hit the bin.
- Black and white. If it’s in black and white and your video store has it, there’s probably a good reason: the film has legs. It’s lasted. Think ‘
’ or ‘The Thirty Nine Steps,’ however, not the entire first year of ‘ Casablanca Coronation Street.’ If it’s ‘B and W,’ it’s worth the trouble. But bear in mind rule 1 above.
- No gun fights/sword fights/car chases/explosions. Now, I don’t mean films like ‘The Longest Day’ or ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ here. Think ‘Die Hard,’ if ‘think’ can be used about a whole franchise untouched by human minds. Aristotle identified that without conflict, there is no plot, but in my revised edition of his ‘Poetics’ he went on to add that loud noises and Bruce Willis are no substitute for a film with a plot. ‘Hey, who cares,’ say the money-men, ‘let’s have a half-hour of gun fights/car chases/explosions to pad out the end of the movie.’ No, let’s not. Best to watch a movie in which the story actually has a real story.
- Every rule has at least one exception. Except this one.
- Goodies and baddies are for cartoons (and don’t bother with that childish Spider Man/Batman/Hulk/Arnie crap on film either, unless you’ve either just got to the head of the lobotomy waiting list and you want to show off, or you watch coming-of-age movies to pick up tips for the future). The best, most intelligent drama sets good against good, the worst sets good against psycho, sicko with a grudge or serial killer.
Psychos and sickos makes for cartoon viewing and poor drama; good-against-good makes for really good plot conflict, out of which real, memorable drama develops. Unfortunately, while there's a slew of good novels like this I can’t remember the last time I saw a film which adopts this technique. Perhaps I schould eschew film-watching and just read a good book.
So what does that leave me with then? Here’s a list of my favourite film things that I made up a few years back; a list -- sadly – I haven’t needed to revise since. And if you like real drama, here’s what you could be enjoying when you’re filling your head with George and Julia.
[UPDATED to add 'No psychos or serial killers' to the list -- the inclusion of these as a major plot device are once again just an excuse for a poor screenplay. And no Spielberg: his telegraphic directoral style amounts to little more than watching cartoons. It affects you like you feel it ought to do.]