We’ve talked about “Chekhov’s gun“–the rule in storytelling that when you show a gun early in a story, you have to use it before the end. You’ve established expectations that need to be fulfilled. We’ve also noticed its use in movies like Birdman. Here are a couple more examples I’ve encountered recently.
Israel Horovitz is a well-known playwright who recently turned his play My Old Lady into a movie with Maggie Smith, Kevin Kline, and Kristin Scott Thomas. Kline plays a bitter sad-sack who has been left a French apartment by his father, only to discover that it is inhabited by its elderly former owner and her daughter (Smith and Thomas). Under a quirky French law, Kline not only can’t sell the apartment, he has to pay Smith a kind of reverse mortgage every month. Drama, heartbreak, revelation, and resolution ensue. There is much talk of death and suicide. And there is a hunting rifle, which Kline plays with early on in the movie. We wait patiently for the hunting rifle to make its next appearance. We are not disappointed.
The movie is not bad but not great. Horovitz obviously knows how to construct a story. But as is often the case, a good play doesn’t always make a compelling movie. Like many adaptations, this one felt claustrophobic and talky to me, and the basic situation and relationships among the characters felt contrived. The ultimate hunting rifle scene is well-handled, though — it took place off-camera, so we don’t know what happened at first. Will this be a tragedy, or a comedy?
The other movie is Stolen Moments, a ridiculously bad silent movie that Rudolf Valentino made just before he became a star. I could write about it in my intermittent series of post about writers in the movies, because Valentino plays “a Brazilian writer of novels in English,” according to the intertitles. But really, it’s not worth it. The storytelling is about as primitive as it can be, and that includes the use of Chekhov’s sword. Valentino’s butler goes takes the sword down from the wall and goes after him in an unmotivated drunken rage. Valentino easily disarms him and sends him packing. And then puts the sword on the table, where it sits patiently awaiting the final, confused climax, when, of course, it will be used to better effect.
Birdman has gotten great reviews for its acting and its zippy direction. Underneath the long tracking shots and the magic realism, though, it’s a pretty standard backstage drama, the kind that would not have seemed out of place in the 1930s. There’s the aging movie star risking everything to gain legitimacy by directing and starring in a Broadway play. There’s the backstage romantic tension. There’s the jaded New York Times critic, writing her reviews in longhand on a barstool. There’s the ex-wife, the rehabbing daughter, the long-suffering lawyer . . .
And there’s even a pretty straightforward example of Chekhov’s gun.
Spoiler alert, I guess.
In the final scene of the play that the movie star (Michael Keaton) is staging, he is supposed to aim a gun at another actor (Edward Norton). At one of the preview performances, Norton, who is a talented jerk, complains to Keaton that the gun isn’t real enough; he can’t react appropriately to a toy gun. End of scene.
Well, you can’t really have a character complain that a gun doesn’t look real enough without bringing this back into the plot in a big way, can you?
It’s opening night. Norton has been sleeping with Michael Keaton’s daughter. Keaton is being sued by an actor he dropped from the play. The Times critic has guaranteed to Keaton that she’s going to give the play a terrible review, no matter how good it is. Things can’t get any worse for him. We see him backstage before the final scene, loading a real gun . .
The plot device is hackneyed, but the movie actually does a clever job of playing against our expectations. The thing worked for me, even as I said to myself: Ah, come on . . .
Actually, I’d have enjoyed the movie even without the tracking shots and Keaton flying through the air above Manhattan.
The Kiss, from 1929, was the last silent movie for both MGM and Greta Garbo.
There’s no to watch it except for Garbo. That’s because there’s just not much going on in it. As the web site Silent Volume says:
I got the feeling that The Kiss, Garbo’s last silent film, was acted on the sly, as though everyone knew the Temptress had run its course and wanted to see how little they could build around the character and still make it work. For The Kiss is short: 62 minutes; without a subplot of any kind, one scant scene of comic relief; a barely resolved second act and no real third act at all.
A commenter on the site suggests that the studio just gave up on the film because it knew that talkies were the future and didn’t want to waste time and money on something no one would watch.
I’m always interested in plots that involve Chekhov’s gun, however, and The Kiss includes a very rudimentary implementation of the technique — every bit as rudimentary as the one in The Two Mrs. Carrolls. In an early scene we see Garbo’s husband dropping some papers, and then opening the bottom drawer of a file cabinet to insert them into it. Inside the drawer we and Garbo see — a gun! Later on (spoiler alert!) Garbo is trying to stop her husband from beating up the callow young man he has seen her chastely kissing (Lew Ayres, appropriately awful). The husband thrusts Garbo aside. She is on the floor — she suddenly recalls the gun in the file cabinet next to her — she takes it out — she shoots!
I don’t know the state of forensics back in the 20’s, but it seems odd that the jury lets Garbo off on the theory that her husband committed suicide. The bullet, after all, was fired from a gun at least half a dozen feet away, held at the level of the husband’s kneecap. Such details aren’t worth worrying about in this movie, however. Better to just look at Garbo.