Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Plot holes vs. nitpicks - Ferris Bueller's dog and weak screenwriting

UPDATE: Again, I swear Scott and I don't plan these sort of tag-team bits (except for when we do) but he's got a GITS post today on emotional logic, which deals with many of the same kinds of issues I talk about below. Check it out, won't you?

Last week I found myself watching Ferris Bueller's Day Off in its entirety for the first time in quite a while. This was one of my favorite movies when I was growing up and still is. Teen movies have changed so much since the days of John Hughes that as I was watching, I couldn't help but wonder how the film would be received if it came out today.

I thought of another film of that era, Back to the Future, which is often cited as a textbook example of how to set-up and payoff every single moment in the film. If you watch the first act, there's hardly a line of dialogue in there that doesn't resonate later in the film in some fashion, whether it's the way that the lightning bolt at the clock tower is set-up, or the reasons for Marty to hold onto the flyer announcing that event. There's also the backstory of Marty's parents meeting, George McFly's dynamic with Biff and even little details like the "Twin Pines Mall" and Marty later running over one of Old Man Peabody's dual pines.

As this was banging through my head, the film reached the classic scene where school dean Ed Rooney breaks into Ferris's house and has a confrontation with Ferris's dog... and it hit me! This is the first time we're seeing Ferris's dog and it's more than an hour into the film! You'd think conventional screenwriting wisdom would have dictated a scene earlier in the movie establishing the pooch's presence before Ferris left, and yet... no.

This struck me because it wasn't that long ago I saw the divide among fans of Super 8. There were those who nitpicked every last detail of the film as proof it was crap, while plenty of other viewers who were touched by the movie basically adopted the "la la la... not listening" approach to the holes. I didn't think it was a perfect film, myself. I even admit there are some details that don't quite fit... but some of the critiques crossed the line into really anal nitpicking. It was almost as if these viewers were looking for a fight with the film and were blasting it for not having any faith in their ability to connect the dots off-screen.

There's an excellent comment thread from Go Into The Story that deals with this. Also, the review by the usually excellent Auditors found here contains a number of examples of the latter. Just to pick two of them:

1. Why was the Air Force moving the Cloverfield Jr. monster EAST across the country to more heavily populated areas? There’s a reason why Area 51 is in the middle of fucking nowhere; only accessible via AIRCRAFT; it’s GREAT FOR HIDING STUFF!

It's not explained, but I don't particularly think it needs to be. They had it in captivity for a long time and obviously they had their reasons for moving it. Maybe they were taking it to the East Coast to put it on a barge to the Arctic. Does it really matter? Is this really a plot hole?

2. Why didn’t the Cloverfield Jr. monster simply escape previously while on the train? This is a HUGE plot hole that everyone just simply (and stupidly) accepts without any logic. The Cloverfield Jr. monster is capable of manipulating metal objects to a great degree, and can apparently also interfere with computers/mechanics/electrical systems. So why didn’t IT just stop the train itself, or just kick open the cargo door like it did when it escaped after the train derailed?

The monster had been held in captivity for decades, ergo, they clearly had some method of countering its powers. Maybe they drugged it, or maybe binding it kept it mostly docile and it wasn't able to escape until the train derailed. This is another instance where the on-screen evidence offers a clue that one can reasonably extrapolate an explanation from.

So if those two points and others like them bothered you in Super 8, you're probably the type of person who'd be pissed that John Hughes didn't respect his audience enough to establish the dog.

So what makes us nitpick some movies and let others off for similar flaws? (And don't think I'm setting up a false dichotomy of either "you must nitpick EVERYTHING or you must question NOTHING.") I'd wager it has to do with the emotional engagement between film and audience. People who gave Super 8 a pass on some logic issues tended to be those who were touched by the film on a deeper level. Conversely, a lot of the people who delivered laundry lists of plot holes probably were viewers looking for chinks in J.J. Abrams' armor.

If you want an even better example, take a look at the reaction J.J. Abram's Star Trek. I've been pretty open in that I think it's one of the best, if not the best of the ten films, and perhaps one of the most emotionally engaging Trek projects in the entire franchise. The vast majority of viewers - heck, even the vast majority of Trekkers - who saw it, liked it... but there was also an extremely vocal minority of Trek fans who are so venomous on the subject of this movie, you'd think it screwed their girlfriends right in front of them.

As a lurker on a few Trek boards, I saw several examples of these individuals as early as a year before the release. Before shooting was even complete on the film, they were already calling it the worst thing since Howard the Duck and were preemptively listing all the things that made working on this movie tanatmount to a war crime. That's why I wasn't too surprised to see these haters offering the following evidence that the film sucked:

"The Stardates are completely inconsistent with Trek standard at that point! They had no respect for the fans or the franchise and that's why this movie sucks!"

"Stars don't just go supernova without warning! They have no respect for scientific accuracy and that's why this movie sucks!"

"The mentally-deranged villain has a crazy revenge scheme that doesn't adhere to cold, dispassionate logic!"

Comments like this amuse me because you can look at ANY Trek film - including the highly regarded Treks II and VI - and find a comparable laundry list of issues. Anyone who cited scientific accuracy as a reason to bash Abrams' Trek has to be willing to concede that there's just as much implausible science in Wrath of Khan. (To wit: the Reliant crew's inability to count planets in the Ceti Alpha system and notice one is missing; anything and EVERYTHING connected to the Genesis Project, including the complete implausibility of its detonation forming a planet and star out of the Mutara Nebula.)

So why for these Trekkers was Wrath of Khan "Trek done right" while Abrams' film couldn't do anything right? Possibly because they didn't give the film a fair chance and were looking for reasons why it was bad. Possibly because the very idea of the film offended them so much that they couldn't give themselves over to its world, and thus, couldn't stop looking for details that reminded them it was a construct.

I'm not saying it's a folly to point out plot holes - but I also think that there comes a point where nitpicking can become a bit too obsessive.

It comes down to this: if you think Ferris Bueller is a stupid film, you probably hate the fact Ferris's dog isn't established sooner. If everything else in that movie works for you, what does it matter if the dog shows up out of nowhere? If Super 8 worked for you emotionally, do you really need to find out why the alien was being moved?


  1. I think the key phrases here are "if it worked for you emotionally" and "if everything else in the movie works for you".
    We can't guarantee that everything we write will work for everyone; you simply can't please all the people all the time, but if there's something at work under these finer details, if it resonates with enough people on a gut level, you'll get a lot of leeway from most reasonable folk. Star Trek is full of holes when you think about it, but I really enjoyed it because it CARRIED me. Seeing it on a huuuuge screen (and not a 3D projector in sight) reminded me what I go to the movies for.

  2. TBSR, talk about synchronicity! I've got a GITS post about "emotional logic" and "Super 8" in the works for later today. I'll link back to this.

  3. Jonathan Demme calls those things (the nitpicky things) refrigerator questions ... in other words, it shouldn't even hit you until after you've seen the movie, came home and are raiding the fridge for a snack, that you go ... wait, why was Clarice alone when she ...

    there's always small logic things, even in Back 2 The Future (the largest one was, in the second, how come his girlfriend morphed into Elizabeth Shue?).

  4. Looking forward to seeing it, Scott! I'll link back to yours once I see it go live.

    And yeah, this occasional synchronicity we've got is weired.

    Joshua - I'm pretty sure that Demme got that term from Hitchcock. (Who might have used it in reference to North by Northwest... I can't remember for sure.)

    For me, the biggest logic issue in BTTF is: "I've gotta warn him - if only I had time! Time... time! I've got all the time I want, I'm in a time machine!...... Ten minutes oughta do it."

    *facepalm* Ten minutes?! Really, Marty? Why not ten hours, or even just one hour?

  5. I liked Super 8, but it did raise some questions. The main one was - why not use whatever got this thing on the train to capture it again. I think it would have added some conflict and direction to what the military was trying to do. I think this is what they were trying to do with the "burning it out" scenario, but it didn't make sense. The second question was - why was it harvesting people under the water tower? Why didn't it kill them? What were they needed for?

  6. Yeah, the harvesting people is a major WTF. My best guess is he was keeping them around as food for when he got hungry... but then that gets back into "Should we really be rooting for this thing to be a cute, cuddly, misunderstood being?"

  7. I would argue that a lot of people have dogs and it's not necessary to introduce a common thing like that in order to make it believable. There's a big difference between "Oh shit, there's a dog." and "Oh shit, there's a monster."

    When we're talking about aliens, monsters and other occurrences that asks the audience to suspend its disbelief, there will automatically be more questions and therefore the filmmakers have to provide the audience with more answers, and those answers better hold up to logic.

    The level of logic has to be higher than in "real life" situations.

    You're asking me to believe there's an alien on the train? Okay, I'll bite. The next thing you ask me to believe better be logical. You can't just stack the suspension of disbelief in layers and expect the audience to go along with it. It will eventually crumple. I think that's what happened with Super 8. There were just too many things that the audience was asked to accept.

  8. I feel like you could do this for ANY movie ever made. There will always be plot holes or logical inconsistencies, no matter how small, no matter how unimportant. Haters will always find them, and point them out. I'm personally of the opinion, if you hate something so damn much, what's the point in spending so much time, energy, and tsuris banging your head against the wall about it. There comes a point where the "academic" study of creative failure simply becomes trolling.

    I think emotion is a big part of the movie going experience. Probably bigger than any of us truly realize. Because in thinking about your examples, in thinking about the thesis you're presenting here, I was entirely on board for both STAR TREK and SUPER 8. Both films engaged me emotionally, and I was along for the ride.

    Compare that to movies like SUCKERPUNCH and BATTLE:LA where I wasn't emotionally engaged, and spent more time thinking about what bothered me in those movies rather than enjoying them.

    While logical truth is definitely needed in scripts, I think what really separates the wheat from the chaff in film is emotional truth. We believe the characters' goals and emotions, and regardless of the situation, we have a connection to those emotions.

    Name ten terrible movies. I bet none of them have an ounce of emotional truth.

    Name ten great movies. I bet all of them contain plot holes and logical inconsistencies.

  9. F. Scott Frazier - Absolutely true. I wonder if we can come up with a film that works emotionally but has huge issues with logic and major screenwriting deficiencies. SUCKER PUNCH is a great example of a film with no emotional truth or truly coherent plotting.

    Wait... I might have one... Raiders of the Lost Ark. Take Indy out of that story and what does it really change? The Nazis still get the Ark, they open it, they melt. In story terms, you could probably make a case that Indy isn't integral to events at all.

  10. The Nazis wouldn't have found the Ark without Indy. They were digging in the wrong spot.

  11. Only because they had just one half of the medallion. Had Indy not been there at the first confrontation, the Nazis would have taken the entire medallion from Marion and thus, known where to dig from the start.

    Erase Indy and you erase the circumstances that led to the Nazis being misinformed.

  12. In my mind, emotional truth or emotional resonance or whatever we want to call it is the reason Michael continues to make, and will likely always make giant blockbusters that everyone goes to see. It's not because he's playing to middle America, or the lowest common denominator. It's because his zone (and he has a pretty good monopoly on it) is in-the-moment emotional truth.

    He swings for the fences on emotional concepts literally everyone in the world understands at a fundamental, inherent level from the day their born. Heroism, sex, violence, cathartic release. He may be hitting them to the cheap seats, he may be very emotionally manipulative, but he knows exactly what he's doing. The one movie where logic and plot took over for emotion is the *exact* movie that tanked for him at the Box Office. Coincidence?

  13. I just hate Star Trek because it was badly written, badly casted, badly acted. It's just a bunch of explosions and no real plot.

    Plus I've always thought Urhura and Sulu should get together. (Funny how whenever I say this people will respond with "But he's GAY!" No, the actor who PLAYS Sulu is gay, but just because the actor is gay does NOT mean the character is. It's called ACTING, people. Alan Rickman's not really a wizard, David Tennet doesn't really travel through time, Brent Spiner isn't really an android....)

    And the guy playing Kirk is butt ugly.

  14. Bitter, we can give you that liked the new Trek, that's fine. To say it was the best Trek ever? Yeah, uh, riiiiiight.

    Star Trek II: WOK had a lot of emotion in it, and was by far the best in the entire series. Spock's death is probably one of the best death scenes ever.

    The new Trek didn't connect emotionally at all with us because we were too fucking distracted by the constant plot holes and lens flares. As we've said before, Abrams keeps shit moving, flashing, beeping, and moving.

    None of us felt any connection to the characters except Bones, because none of the actors could actually act. The Nero villain was just insane, and it was even more insane that his crew didn't just kill him and take over the ship.

    Remember, Nero wasn't a pirate, or robber baron, he was a fucking MINER. His crew ain't going to wait around for years for Spock to magically show up.

    Why didn't they just go to Romulus and say, "Word up Beeotches! Check out our mad awesome Death Star rizzide from da future! It can blow up whole planets and shit! ROMULUSES 4 EVERZ!!!

    You really need to see Mr. Plinkett's incredible Star Trek review. It's worth it's weight in gold.


  16. Plinkett = unfunny and overrated. He's got some cool stuff in the Phantom Menace review but every review since has been the same sort of pedantic nitpicking I rail against in this piece. Every now and then he hits a cogent point, but it's buried under a million molehills he turns into mountains.

    Plinkett is TOTALLY the guy who'd bitch about Ferris's dog not being set up.

    WOK had plenty of emotion in it. I don't disagree with that. But I happen to think Abrams Trek had plenty too and as a whole, it balanced the ensemble better than most Trek films, and still managed to tell a great story about Kirk.

    I couldn't disagree with you more about not connecting to the characters in Abrams Trek.

    By the way, Nero's ship couldn't blow up planets. They needed the Red Matter to do that... and they couldn't get THAT until Spock showed up in their timeline. I also think that Nero's conversation with Pike makes it clear that he doesn't care that Romulus still exists in this timeline - he's out to take out Vulcan and Earth as payback.

    The question about Nero's crew not mutinying against him could also easily be turned on Khan's crew in WOK. Only one of Khan's officers dares to show dissent, even after it's pretty clear that Khan's as likely to get them all killed as he is to kill Kirk.

    This is pretty much the point I was getting at - there is no Trek film that comes out clean if you give it the Plinkett treatment. Not by a mile.

  17. The big difference: WOK played it straight, JJ's Trek didn't.

    Too much intentional comedy/slapstick/camp in JJ's Trek, things going wrong just to set up the next joke or action sequence (e.g when Kirk & Scottie beam back, or when Kirk & Sulu skydive).

    And nods to the TV series, just to keep the fanboys happy.

  18. The mere presence of humor in a film doesn't mean it's not "playing it straight." Humor's been an integral part of the original Trek going all the way back to the sixties. The most consistently popular episode of the series is a comedy, for crying out loud! ("The Trouble With Tribbles.") The only Original Trek film that didn't include humor was The Motion Picture, and the result was a very stiff, staid picture that nearly killed the franchise.

    The only humor that didn't really work for me was the giant hands gag, but judging from the crowd reaction, I was in the minority on that one.

    As far as "things going wrong just to set up the new action scene," I'm at a loss to understand how that's a problem. It's just an execution of the principle "Get a character stuck up a tree, throw rocks at him."

    It's why in "Superman" that once Superman catches Lois Lane, the helicopter suddenly falls. Pretty much every Indiana Jones action sequence is based on the "things get worse" principle. The ending climax of Return of the Jedi is full of this kind of stuff too, with the efforts to get the shield down contrasted with the dogfight against the Empire's fleet.

    Or look at Back to the Future's climax:
    - Marty's car fails to start.
    - the wire falls from the clocktower.
    - Doc fixes the wire only to pull it out from the lamp post.

    It's all the same principle.

    In Trek, all of those "things going wrong" are pretty well set-up in their respective sequences. They're trying a pretty tricky manuver in landing on the drill, so it makes sense they'd have a casualty and that there might be some hang-ups such as when Sulu has to cut his parachute loose. In turn, that deprives him of an escape when the later attack to take out the drill causes the drill to shift and send him falling. They'd be remiss if they didn't take advantage of that setting.

    As for the Kirk and Scotty beaming sequence, as they're attempting an extremely experimental beaming procedure, it's utterly logical that there'd be an unexpected complication. Obviously, they can't have the characters materialize in a bulkhead or in the middle of the warp core, so putting Scotty in peril the way they did makes sense to me.

  19. How to respond...

    First of all, and just to set the record straight, I like JJ's ST. Probably seen it 30+ times, with probably around 5 or 6 with script in hand. And imho, the 1st 10 mins of JJST are as good as anything I've seen.

    So I don't think it's a bad film, although having said that, there are times when it's unwatchable to me, mostly due to bad acting/dialogue ("Hi Christopher, I'm Nero"), and various hokey scenes (the snow monsters, puffy hands, etc...).

    All I'm trying to do is explain why I think WOK is a better movie.

    Now, I agree that humor, per-se, doesn't mean that the producers aren't playing it straight, but when you set things up the way JJST does, where you don't have just one or two physical gags, but a bunch of them, that build on each other, that changes things. And it's their prerogative to shoot the movie how they want. But I should point out WOK doesn't have a single gag in it.

    IMHO, there are plenty of things that *are* funny and camp about WOK, from "KHAAAANNN", to Ricardo Montelban's is it or isn't it fake chest, the hokey dialogue, etc..., but it doesn't feel as if any of those are intentional (And while I'm at it, I disagree about Tribbles. To me, that's a straight episode with comedic elements, the Enterprise characters being fully aware of the humor/absurdity of their situation.).

    You mention Superman, Back to the Future, Indiana Jone and Jedi, as films that all use the "things get worse" trick to propel their narrative, but in JJST it feels forced and overplayed. In a movie like Empire Strikes Back, it's played just right with some subtlety, or Iron Man which uses just a touch of slapstick (propulsion test scene) to keep act 2 rolling.

    I guess my point is that there's a limited amount of screen-time, and every minute spent in the pursuit of a gag or joke, is a minute not spent in character or plot development. I just wanted to see a little more of the latter, in this movie.

  20. I think you give those people too much credit when you even consider that they might have been offended by the movie itself - when people pick things apart like that, online - things that you have to work for and study (sometimes in advance, as you point out) they have a wholly different agenda than someone who sees the movie to see it. They want the social rewards that come with tearing a movie apart.

    And hey, in Back to the Future, which is near-perfect - why weren't Marty's parents shocked as their eventual child grew up to look exactly like the Marty they met years earlier? It took me years to realize that, and though it bothers me a little, it certainly doesn't come close to ruining the movie for me.

  21. I think your most telling observation is that these nitpicking super-fans (of which I have certainly been one on occasion) frequently make up their minds to hate the film long before they've actually seen it. J.J. haters have some valid concerns based on his track record and signature story telling preferences, but in this case I think something else is at play.

    Any time a property is rebooted, reintroduced, or otherwise made accessible to a new audience there will be two kinds of people paying attention: those who are new to the property, and those who are familiar with previous incarnations. The development aim of any franchise is to make it appealing to as many people as possible, and so, choices in character, plot, and setting will always favor the comfort of the uninitiated over the depth and subtlety of content desired by the hardcore. The super-fan's devotion, which makes the property attractive to the studio in the first place, inherently means they can't be served by the new project.

    We know this is the model (consciously or not) and the disappointment it creates leads to the "it's going to suck" campaigns.

    I'm thinking of another post where you examined the reception of the Harry Potter movies by those who have read the books vs. those who have not. The attitude of superiority that comes from being previously exposed to the material is natural when you combine it with the above. The super-fans have a considerable investment of time and imagination in these properties. I can understand the feeling that, "if you can't bother to do your homework, why should you get to enjoy this as much as I should?" Of course we know the reality is that the newbie will enjoy it much more. They enter the experience with few preconceptions and are thereby drawn into the film. This makes them inclined to forgive small inconsistencies of logic and plot more readily than the super-fan in the analytic mode you describe. They're so afraid they won't like it, that they sit cringing in the dark, awaiting the unforgivable sin - incapable of enjoyment.

    As more and more bits of our childhood are mined for film adaptations, studios need to be aware that when they lust after those built-in franchise audiences, built-in backlash and nit-picking are part of the package.

    Does it do any good to take the nitpicking to the extreme level you're talking about? No. But I think it's an inevitable byproduct of the way movies are selected for development these days.