Sunday, 25 November 2012

Part 1 - The Kansas City Shuffle: Comparing Skyfall and Slevin

So I've talked briefly before about when I think absurdity is acceptable in movies and when logic holes can ruin a serviceable plot:

In this and its companion piece I hope to make my feelings clearer through a comparison of Skyfall and, an old favourite of mine, Lucky Number Slevin.

I re-watched the latter last night and was again struck by the absurdity of the two ethnic gangs at the heart of the plot. The Rabbi's footsoldiers are skull cap wearing, Hasidic Jews who honour the Sabbath and tote shotguns. Meanwhile Morgan Freeman's gang are exclusively of African descent. These two gangs are based in rival skyscrapers and are vicious rivals in various spheres of criminal activity.

At first glance this might not seem too surprising. The stereotypes are rampant and sharply drawn but real life criminal gangs are often based around ethnicity and culture. This is especially true in the multicultural cities of the USA, where Lucky Number Slevin is set.

However, it is revealed during the film that the two gangs were once united before the Rabbi made a pre-emptive strike against the Boss. The image of a bi-ethnic gang that recruits only from Jews and black people before splitting exactly along those fault lines lines is too silly to be contemplated. If two races and cultures could coexist in the pre-split organisation why not throw the doors open to applicants of any background?

I struggled to find a reason for this. Lucky Number Slevin is actually a fairly coherent film with witty dialogue, a tight plot, comic moments and some dark but deep themes of motivation and revenge. Why would they resort to such a superficial and illogical way of distinguishing between the feuding gangs?

Then I figured it out. Lucky Number Slevin has a grand total of five distinct factions: the Boss, the Rabbi, the Police, Goodcat/Slevin and Lindsey/Slevin. In its 110 minutes running time it has to elaborate and develop the motives and characters of each faction to retain the viewer's interest. This is an extremely ambitious project. The vast majority of 10+ hour video games have a mere 2-3 developed factions.

In view of this ambition it is acceptable for the film to resort to stereotypes and superficial differences. The viewer's familiarity with the involved cultures and institutions allows the film to do without tedious back story. Instead the narrative can focus on the action and on developing the interesting interactions and twisting ambitions of the main players.

This (like Looper) is a good example of how to do absurdity right in film. Skyfall, on the other hand, is not ….. as I will attempt to show in Part 2.  

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