4 Films That Make Amateur Mistakes (And Get Away With It)

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Cinema really is a wonderful thing, a true spectacle and a glowing indication of our soaring creative spirits, with billions of dollars and months of man hours dedicated to building dream worlds for us to experience, a shot at escapism and enraptured obsession a million miles from our dreary lives.

So it makes sense that nitpicking said wonders is a pretty popular activity, an amusing one at that, that gives balance to a universe that for a while looked a little too optimistic. Whether it’s Scorcese’s magic cigarettes, or Mr Spock’s startlingly brief turbolift voyage, we’ve all noted the little things, and celebrated them inside, a small, petty victory for the everyman. After all, what’s more satisfying than taking the revered down a peg or two?

But sometimes a film makes a crucial, shatteringly paradoxical mistake, an error in scripting or style or construct, which is somehow too big to be obvious, and so basic that you wonder why the makers themselves didn’t notice it. Cue wearied disillusionment when you realize that the man in the big chair knew along, and needed said flaw to keep the movie together.

This is because, sometimes, the film somehow manages to not only survive ridicule for its error, but to thrive in spite of it. When the product is good enough, nobody cares.

Here are four examples.

*Obvious spoilers are obvious*

American History X Defies Its Own Narrative

Although disturbingly open to misinterpretation and wrongful use as a product (check out YouTube video comments as cited evidence), Tony Kaye’s American History X is a highly rated, critically acclaimed drama of searing power that frequents many a fan’s top 100 lists.

It’s the tale of Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton), a far right wing skinhead and gang leader who changes his way and gives in to his intelligence after a life changing stint in prison, and sets about rescuing his younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) from following the same dark path he took. The film takes an unconventionally balanced look at the issue of racial tensions and allegiance, with an underlying theme and message that is similarly devoid of preaching and upstanding, unilateral morality, and is an unqualified success as a result.

The film’s narrative actually means that the film’s protagonist is Danny, since he provides the narration while writing about his brother for a school report, an essay on modern American life for his principal Dr Sweeney (Avery Brooks), and it is this thread which keeps the plot together, as it segues between black and white flashbacks depicting Derek as the rabble rousing racist and the color mounted scenes of the rehabilitated family man, as he takes painful steps towards burning his bridges with the neo-nazis who have ruined his life. Without this story structure, the film would be a disorganized mess.

A little fact which makes it all the more intriguing, and humorous, when you realize that it ‘cheats’ during a pivotal stage in the film…

Wait…What?

Having just turned his back on the Venice beach firm celebrating his release, Derek is accosted by his angry and conflicted brother Danny, who demands to know what is happening to him. At this point, Derek sits him down and explains just what happened in the joint, from his new alliances, brutal prison rape and his growing friendship with a black inmate that leads to his epiphany. It’s all wonderful stuff.

Except that this flashback is told by Derek, not Danny, who is the film’s eyes, ears and, crucially, mouth. Naturally, Derek puts words to the scenes, and in the process the film briefly (for about twenty minutes) abandons its storytelling format in order to view first hand a crucial part of the character’s arc. Taking a step back, this makes no sense, and you’re left wondering whether Danny is now quoting Derek’s recollections verbatim for his essay, or if this is a summation of said conversation, or…well, you get the idea.

Of course, something like this could only occur in film. A narrative switch such as that exhibited here would be impossible in literature, but slips by without notice in visual format. Chances are most of you haven’t noticed it.

And that’s the beauty of it, of course. Because American History X is so collar grabbing, and such visceral and gripping entertainment, that you are too close to the material to pick up on it. It gets away with it, and then some.

The Prestige Invokes Deus Ex Machina without Due Cause

From one piece of audience manipulation that is the model of stealth, to one that nearly every one has caught…

Sandwiched between two Batman films and occasionally forgotten about when reviewing Christopher Nolan’s portfolio, The Prestige is one of the Brit director’s most underrated pieces of work, a pumped up and thrilling magic show of a film.

Based very loosely on Christopher Priest’s novel of the same name, The Prestige pits turn of the century stage shows and period era public entertainment into the thriller/revenge/deadly rivalry stakes by depicting the intense competition between two magicians, Borden (Christian Bale) and Angiers (Hugh Jackman), as they battle to on-up each other by presenting the greatest trick ever seen.

Cue the ‘Transported Man’, a startling gambit where one of said magicians steps through a door, then an instant later emerges from the other side of the stage, a seemingly impossible act. While Borden has this nailed down seamlessly, with no clear explanation, Angiers is forced to employ a lookalike and heavy audience misdirection, and obsesses over his arrival’s secret. It is this loathing fuelled desire that sends him across the world looking for a solution, ending up at the door of one Nikola Tesla (David Bowie…yup).

He finally finds it, and the film’s loaded conclusion sees the two protagonists meeting face to face, with each of their tricks unmasked at long last, two vastly different approaches, both of them shocking and mind boggling.

One of them in fact breaks through the walls of the film’s setting, reality and genre to provide an explanation…

Wait…What?

It is cited by many critics as the film’s failing, with Roger Ebert in particular describing it as the ‘cheat’ that ruins the film. This is because Angiers wasn’t being ‘transported’, as the audience was led to believe, but was in fact being duplicated.

This is because the machine he procures, which is already moving the film away from its grounding, is in fact a cloning machine which creates identical copies of Angiers each time he steps into it. In order to have Angiers finally match his rival, it requires him to fall into science-fiction and fantasy. While the Borden twins revelation is stark, it is still within the realms of possibility. Magic machines that create human beings don’t fall into the same category, and don’t fit the established realm that the rest of the film lives within.

In many ways, it’s amazing that The Prestige was able to survive such a twist of logic, such is its size and significance. However, it does, and for many the jump enhances the entertainment and spectacle. It does, however, have a far more fitting reason for working: it works perfectly with one of the film’s underlying themes, that of dedicating one’s whole life to its art. Borden lives a lie, his whole life tailored to suit a single magic trick he performs. Angiers, on the other hand, is forced to break science in order to match him.

It is then a beautiful cheat, but a cheat nonetheless.

Raging Bull Contains No Character Development

Speaking ill of Raging Bull can be considered blasphemy in certain circles, such is the acclaim that Scorcese’s multi-award winning stylistic biopic holds. It is rated by many a decorated pundit as one of the finest films ever made, and tops the charts of Scorcese’s bests, above even Goodfellas and Taxi Driver.

The subject is real life boxer Jake LaMotta, a salt of the earth fighter from the Bronx who briefly touched the stars in his career, only to fall back to earth in a spectacular, life ruining fall amidst corruption and mob interests. By tale’s end, he is a dried up, spat out hunk of meat with little purpose, having jettisoned all that matters so he could be a king for the blink of an eye.

Famed for its beautifully scored, wonderfully cinematographed fight sequences, Raging Bull’s real substance over style comes from Robert De Niro as LaMotta, an intense and full blooded performance, complete with facial prosthetics and severe weight gain, breathing life into the common man turned star turned husk.

Through his transformation, we follow LaMotta from boxcar amateur fighter to world champion, then down to disgrace and scrapheap status as a foul mouthed entertainer, haunted by lost fame and riches, not to mention ruined personal life and emotional scars.

All this despite him being one of cinema’s least sympathetic protagonists…

 Wait…What?

Whether you consider it to be a flaw of the film, or rather par to the course of the story and completely intentional, one thing is glaringly obvious when you look at Raging Bull from an objective, analytical point of view; Jake LaMotta never changes, only his situation does.

From the first moment we meet him, LaMotta is an uncouth, belligerent and obnoxious figure, a battler with a chip the size of Manhattan on his shoulder, who demands of the world the glory he feels he is owed. He ditches his barely seen first wife for a younger, more glamorous neighborhood girl (Cathy Moriarty), whom he treats like a dog for much of the film, even when he has children, and doesn’t fight for her love when she leaves him. His paranoia over his brother (Joe Pesci) is not caused by the changes in his life, but is indicative of his nature, one of many insidious parts of his personality. Success does not mutate him, but merely indulges his arrogance. This is hero’s journey, even a tragic one. In fact, tragic is not a word to be used to describe LaMotta’s descent, for he deserves little else.

Even when he is washed up, spat out by the sport, he bears no regret about his actions, any signs of mellowing or maturing, instead only reserving bitterness towards the perceived wrongs he has suffered, still thinking of himself as a giant rather than a ghost.

As mentioned before, the very fact that this is a biopic, and that as such it is built as a character study, means that LaMotta’s nature is the focus, and his lack of amiability is fully intended. On balance, it’s worth noting that a film succeeding despite its main character being loathsome is some trick to pull off, kudos due in no small part to Scorcese’s framing, and De Niro’s virtuoso turn which distracts the viewer from the fact that he is playing the hero’s arc as a scumbag.

The Shawshank Redemption‘s Title is a Lie

 Another colossus of cinema, The Shawshank Redemption’s status as a film great is undoubted, as a quick trip to IMDb will tell you. It’s seen as one of the most beautiful films ever made, and one of the most significant late bloomers in cinema history (its box office take was poor).

It follows the journey taken by Andy Dufrense (Tim Robbins), a mild mannered accountant who winds up in the big house after his wife and lover are murdered by someone else. Here, he befriends fellow lifer Red (Morgan Freeman), a long lasting relationship which makes his perilous, arduous existence more bearable as he uses his strength to win small victories and retain his humanity, to beat the prison he is wrongly incarcerated in.

As most likely everyone knows, he manages to use his skills to become useful to the corrupt warden (Bob Gunton), and his personal dragon of a head guard (Clancy Brown), making his life easier and giving him the opportunity to mount a daring and calculated escape, one that proves successful. Then at the end, he is reunited with his buddy Red in Mexico, where the two are free at last to enjoy the world’s beauty.

It’s a poignant and superbly story, one that speaks to the better parts of human nature and really promotes hope in all its guises, the notion that we can never give up because one day, sooner of later, we will get our due. Andy’s refusal to submit sees him earn his freedom and get his life back, after the most profound of experiences.

Although, having said that, it’s interesting that there isn’t actually any redemption to speak of…

Wait…What?

There is a lot in the ending to bring a tear to the eye, and the film itself is moving, but despite it being called The Shawshank Redemption, there isn’t any redeeming to be done, and this isn’t what Andy’s experience and drive is based around.

In fact, it’s the complete opposite. Andy Dufrense is an innocent man, the only innocent man in Shawshank. The only crime he committed was not loving his wife hard enough, and for this, and a series of unfortunate circumstances, he wound up having his life taken away from him. The film doesn’t depict his shot at redemption, at finding resolution and peace within himself, but is more about getting even. He is fighting from the get go; fighting against the prison, fighting against the torment, fighting against his oppressors. There is no release, no letting go and allowing this to be his escape. He wants it to be very much literal, and gets his wish, by continuously defying everyone and everything until he gets his way.

Sure, he works with the man to get special privileges, helping the system, but he is doing this to his advantage, playing the long game with an eye on the bigger picture. If anyone is granted anything close to redemption in the film, it’s Red. And even then, he isn’t so much redeeming himself as being made to see his error, his process is more about atoning. By film’s end, he is weary and beaten, regretful for his past actions but too experienced to know he can change or hope to change them. He grieves for the young man he once was, lost.

While the film in a sense is set up towards how Shawshank is a process of teaching, or setting these men right, only one of them ever gives in to it, and it isn’t the main character, as is often surmised. And in the case of the other, it is more frivolous misuse of a powerful word to describe a far more complex and less idealistic character development that is based on the punishment itself, not the actions thereafter. Neither men seek redemption, let alone receive it.

Not that this takes anything away from the film, of course. It works well and powerfully on its own two legs. But it is interesting to note that, in some odd way, it is based around a lie. Still works, though…

Scott Patterson

10 Comments
  1. James says

    I’ve got to say, I don’t feel any of these were really cheats, but I always appreciate someone who takes time to think about movies and talk/write about them. In particular, though, I’ve got to comment on The Prestige- It’s one of my favorite movies, and alot of that has to do with the ending. I think the sudden divergence into sci-fi and the supernatural is extremely intentional and fits perfectly with the tone of the film,

  2. Brandon says

    Not to trash a fellow film fan, but I’m not sure you’ve approached any of these with an “objective, analytical point of view”. Each of these films as you present them, and the conclusions you’ve reached, seem downright overly analytical; in the sense that you’ve gotten far too carried away with trying to present some kind of impressive revelation that may not really be there. – Or that you’re just (generally) trying too hard to make an impression, period. Example: “cinematographed” impressive as it sounds – and would certainly be hard to say: not a word.

    You got good taste, I’ll give you that.

  3. tmack says

    The Prestige is one of my favorite films; in fact, it is one of my favorite Christopher Nolan films. I did not feel duped at all by Angier’s trick. This film is, after all, about obsession and how it can lead you down a dark & evil path. Angier is warned twice about this–by his ingenieur (?) and then by Tesla. In fact, both Angier and Borden have hurled themselves into the realm of obsession with disturbing consequences–Borden’s wife kills himself and the other woman leaves him. Angier has an insecurity complex that helps drive him into the unknown. That he would willingly dive into the world of “inexplicable magical science” is hardly far-fetched, especially because, at the time, we believe that Borden has, too (His having purchased a machine from Tesla, we are told).

    Science is magic, after all, until we discover why something happens. “Never tell someone how to do the trick,” Borden warns a little boy. “You’ll lose their admiration.”

    That could be said of the unveiling of the film’s conclusion as well.

  4. Tony says

    Dear Dummy,

    The redemption is Red’s, not Andy’s.

    Sincerely,
    Tony

  5. Christian says

    As for The Prestige, Angier being duplicated is part of the book. But this is one of the few times I think the book is better than the movie.

  6. porkchop says

    Andy and Red redeem each other. They save one another from despair. Dufresne treats his life like it’s already over, as when he taunts the warden. He takes risks because he doesn’t think he has anything to lose. While he has moments of genuine pleasure (sharing beers with his fellows, the Marriage of Figaro record) Red is the one who’s truly affected. Which is why he’s successful with the parole board. He acted institutionalized in his previous parole hearings, but shows he isn’t in his last one: redemption. Andy is the only one who takes Red’s lecture about institutionalization to heart; you can see that once he decides he deserves to live, he experiences real fear about his escape for the first time.

    As for Raging Bull, the development comes from your experience of the character. Scorsese’s and DeNiro’s honesty in showing you LaMotta’s terrible flaws allows you to see the character from a viewpoint that’s loving, full of grace.

    I really enjoyed your article and thinking about these movies!

  7. Scott Patterson says

    Staindslaved, thanks for the feedback.

    I can see your point with Raging Bull, but I suppose to a degree its about interpretation. In particular, him trying to get his brother to forgive him played out quite differently in my mind, it almost seemed as if he was desolate and alone that he HAD to make an effort to reconcile and get someone back in his life. He never struck me as being sincere. But again, this is personal interpretation.

  8. Staindslaved says

    Interesting article though I have to disagree 100% with Raging Bull having no character development. What about the scene where he’s practically begging Joe Pesci for forgiveness? Or when he’s ripping the jewels out of his championship belt? I certainly took the final act of that film to be Jake dwelling in the reality that he created for his own glory and realizing it might not have been worth it.

    And as Bill has already stated you don’t need character development to create a cinematic masterpiece (though I guess that’s kinda the whole point of the article). As a literary professor once told me “You have to know the rules before you can properly know how to break them”.

  9. Scott Patterson says

    Thanks Bill, coming from somebody as expert and talented as yourself, that means a lot.

    I’d agree with your thoughts on The Prestige, I loved the twist when I first watched it, and still think it holds water, but I can’t deny it takes liberties, and I can understand why people felt duped by it.

    As for Raging Bull, that’s true about the ‘frozen’ protagonists, but I think the main difference that seperates the examples you cited from LaMotta is that they, in some way, have a degree of sympathy or amiability about them, whereas LaMotta is downright unlikeable throughout.

    It’s the main reason I admire Raging Bull rather than love it, because I can never connect with its lead, whereas I end up bearing a grudging respect for Harry Callaghan despite his methods.

  10. Bill Mesce says

    Compliments on a nicely written, equally well-observed piece. In the spirit of, well, spirited discussion, let me offer:
    On the change in narrator in AMERICAN X, you wrote that such a narrative switch couldn’t happen in literature. Actually, there are a number of fine novels that change first person narratives. But, as with AMERICAN X, to work, it has to be handled deftly.
    I agree with you that THE PRESTIGE is a woefully overlooked film, but I never felt the machine was a cheat. I see the point, but this was a movie that even before the machine, hinted at some mystical, magical side to the world. I think whether or not it bothers someone is more a matter of taste.
    And on RAGING BULL, I agree there’s no character development, but I’d submit that this idea that a character MUST experience change — have an arc, as the say in the seminars — is something that’s come up in the last 20-30 years. Prior, you can find any number of great films anchored in the non-changing nature of their protagonist; it’s their friction with the changing world around them that generates the drama. Everything from DIRTY HARRY, THE WILD BUNCH, Taylor in PLANET OF THE APES, PATTON, et al.
    All debatable points, I grant, and that’s what’s so cool about your piece; it’s done smartly enough to generate debate. My compliments.

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