Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Mama Mia.

Sloppy as it is, the movie Mama Mia does demonstrate some interesting aspects of the mainstream feature film.

A constantly intriguing question about this form is: what is the relationship amongst the parts? How is the ending for a movie the ending for that beginning?

Bad movies, I'd argue, often go wrong by having the wrong ending--or you could say the right ending for a different movie.

Rather surprisingly, I'll argue that the ending is seldom the resolution of the purported problem with which the film commences. Rather, it's the resolution for another, more fundamental problem.

Indeed, each part of a fiction film often replaces an earlier problem with another, more complicated one. Things seldom get better and better in a feature film: more often, they get worse and worse.

More specifically, one problem isn't "solved": it just morphs into another, worse problem. Or one solution in turn gives rise to other problems.

But I get ahead of myself.

It is common parlance to divide a feature film into three "acts."
  • The first ten to thirty minutes sets up the characters and situation,
  • the next hour or so launches one or more protagonists on a 'journey' that takes them away from their ordinary universe,
  • and the last ten or twenty minutes (the traditional denouement), resolves most everything and returns the characters and their world back to form of stability.
This is all fine. Or it's all rather sloppy, but it's good enough. But is the universe of the second act the same universe?

Generally not.

I've said before that one characterization for a film story is: things are not what they seemed. That is: a film story often begins when a character realizes that the world doesn't work the way she thought it did.

There's a lovely example in Waking Life: the protagonist is told that if you flip a light switch in a dream, it never works. Then of course, the character flips a light switch when he believes he's wide awake--nothing. Is he dreaming?

It's one of the charms and peculiarities of that movie that it oscillates unstably between waking and dreaming--we and the characters are often not entirely sure. Thus, one could say, it's not a very "good" movie--in traditional terms, at least.

To get back to Mama Mia, the film starts almost instantly with a problem and a protagonist. A young woman on the eve of her marriage confesses to her friends that she has found her mother's diary (hoary old plot device), examined the month of her conception own conception, and discovered that her mother had three lovers during that month. She's also invited all three--this is the image that starts the film--to her wedding the next day. When she meets her real dad, she'll know (she thinks), but meanwhile, mom mustn't know.

So we have a protagonist: the daughter. And she has a task she's well on the way to beginning: discovering her real father.

Naturally, we may full well expect that seeing the gentlemen in question will not be enough to decide her own paternity, if anything indeed will.

And we have a new universe--from one with only a mother and a daughter, to a universe with a plethora of fathers, really just broad types gussied up as characters, but fine, good enough, we'll have time to learn about them.

So that's it. The first act is just about over. The gentlemen set out for the wedding (in a clumsy montage) and intersect pretty quickly. It needn't take much more than ten minutes, singing included.

Once the men encounter each other, we could say the second act has begun. But I think a subtler analysis would be that once the daughter sees all three and does not know which her father is--that's when the real problems begin.

In any case, the problem of the ending is: what will be a satisfying ending for a given beginning?

Here's the truly interesting part.

The film starts out with a daughter's problem. Who's her father?

But the fact that the daughter considers her fatherless existence a 'problem' is rather a reproach against the mother.

This has to come out.

The daughter has to say 'you raised me without a father, but I've never felt whole or complete, and I can't get married without knowing this fact.'

But it turns out--spoiler alert for those who haven't seen the film--that what the daughter who's more conventional than her mother (who never married) needs to learn is to be more like her mother, not less, to be less conventional, not to get married, but rather to travel the world in search of herself.

The film isn't about a daughter who needs to find a father, who needs to be different from her mother. It's about a daughter who needs to find herself--her initial purpose in finding her dad--a daughter who needs to be more like her mother.

The wedding--spoilers again--will take place, but it's the mother's wedding the movie turns out to be all about, not the daughter's.

The daughter's actions will end up not cementing her marriage but rather reaching back into the past to provide the marriage and husband her mother never had.

This is extremely socially conservative: damn weirdo mom, raised me as a bastard and now needs to do the 'right' (socially acceptable) thing, to become a conventional little bourgeois wife.

But it's nevertheless a very good ending for this movie and this beginning--because it's not the ending you expect. It's not the ending for the beginning of the film, for the problem set out at the beginning. It's the resolution of a more fundamental problem.

Not that every ending and third act needs to be that.

But feature films are so long. They require variety and surprise. But this mitigate against unity and rationality. So you often need to have characters who don't shape their own destinies, who don't know what they want, who set out on some cockamamie journey, and then find something else, quite despite themselves.

Isn't this what Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz does? She wants to leave home, then doubles back, only to be taken away from home 'against her own will'. The resolution means going back to the home you were so eager to leave--go figure.

--E. R. O'Neill

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