Saturday, April 12, 2008

Great Expectations

Last night I sat up late, impatiently waiting for extended coverage of the US Masters golf to end (who watches that stuff anyway!?). At last, about 45 minutes later than scheduled, the final episode of Damages began.

As I mentioned in a previous posting (The Power of Withholding Information) the masterfully created mystery and tension had me hooked right from the get-go and I could hardly wait to see the final pieces of the puzzle fall into place!

Which they did, but with a whimper rather than a bang as far as I’m concerned.

The build-up was tremendous. The clever use of flash-forwards kept teasing and wrong-footing me. It created the expectation of some kind of incredibly unorthodox denouement.

Which is exactly why, as the final details were laid out like someone revealing their hand after a nail-bitingly tense game of cards, I couldn’t help feeling they’d been bluffing. That’s it? That’s all there is to it!?

The principle the series used is simple: Cut the story and serve it up in such an order that it’s never obvious who’s really responsible for what until the very last moment. But for this kind of storytelling to be more than a fig leaf for an otherwise mediocre plot, the final twist needs to be hugely powerful and memorable. Which it wasn’t. Not for me, anyway.

Contrast this to a movie I saw recently, The Illusionist, written and directed by Neil Burger. A very simple story in terms of plot, but told in such a way that the very last sequence completely reverses almost every assumption you’ve been led to make throughout the film!

You are literally treated to a montage of all the pieces falling into place in the mind of the detective. Suddenly it all makes sense and in retrospect the entire story acquires a different value.

For me the difference between Damages and The Illusionist is like the difference between a slick and hugely expensive commercial for a run-of-the-mill product, and a modest recommendation for something surprisingly valuable.

The lesson for screenwriters? Never create expectations you can’t deliver on, big-time.

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