Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang Day Two: The Enthusiastic Praise

| by Justin Thomas |

There are no big coincidences and there are no small coincidences. There are only coincidences, and I learned this from Seinfeld of course. Want to know another thing I picked up from Seinfeld? Asking questions of myself, aloud, then answering them. Is it a coincidence Kiss Kiss Bang Bang turned out to be a good movie? No, it isn’t. Do I have an answer as to why it’s a good movie? I have the start to an answer and it begins with Shane Black. Will I ever break this annoying little habit? Sure, just like someone will eventually figure out that trouble over in the Middle East.

If one can believe the trivia section on IMDB, and I don’t see why one can’t, Black struggled with writer’s block on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but it’s not evident in the finished movie. If anything, the finished movie looks as though he knew exactly what he was doing and really went for it. While it doesn’t blaze entirely new trails, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is not the first movie of a new genre, it does push Black’s ideas to the extreme and benefits from it. If he would have pulled back the compromise would be evident and the movie would suffer.

You’re one funny guy

Double Indemnity is not a comedy nor are many film noirs. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a comedy and we’re not subjected to Shecky Greene for two hours. There’s a tremendous amount of humor in the character interaction – I’m sorry, but the wisenheimer exchanges and the reactions they cause are just funny to watch – but Black loads the film with jokes, too. He just uses well-timed cuts to get from the set up to the punch line, thus using editing effectively in executing his jokes.

When Harry and Harmony sit and have their conversation about her not being famous – yet – we’re being set up for them to get together. There’s no way it can end any other way, which leads to the punch line of Harmony’s friend waking up in Harry’s bed and comedy in his attempt to explain what happened to Harmony the next morning. We don’t need to see the rest of that first night. None of it matters. We know where it’s going then the joke comes when it’s completely unexpected.

It happens again the night they finally get to the point where they’ll sleep together. They both want it. They both want it for the right reasons. Their lives have been leading up to that very moment. Then Harmony says she has a confession to make. Cut to Harry kicking her out of the room because her one betrayal in high school was the only one he could not handle. We don’t need to see the confession or Harry’s immediate reaction to the confession. The joke was set up early enough, and strongly enough, that the cut to the punch line is all we need.

The best example? When Harmony’s asleep at the party and a man runs his fingers over those stems, Harry steps in and lets the man know he’s in for trouble if he doesn’t walk away. Cut to Harry getting the piss beat out of him by the man.

Black’s jokes live in the editing and it’s a writer knowing, maybe as well as a writer can know, how to use film language to tell his jokes.

I suck the heads off fish

Allow me to pound on Avatar for just a moment. If you look up the antonym of “subtle” you won’t find a picture of Colonel Miles Quaritch, but you will find the antonym of “subtle” which Quaritch’s character development certainly is. At least Cameron had his wardrobe department stop short of putting a sign “I’m the Bad Guy” around his neck. Black does something with Harmony to define who she is that’s so quiet and small it can get missed but it’s also just large enough to do the job.

When she confesses to Harry she’s not famous, and he replies with “Yet,” she’s drinking a Genaro beer. Then she talks about her appearance in a Genaro beer commercial with the devil in how she acts surprised that she’s drinking a Genaro. Paraphrasing: oh, look, a Genrao beer, what a coincidence. You see, it was no coincidence. Harmony drinks Genaro beer when she goes to bars in the hopes someone might tie the beer to her face and recognize her from the commercial. She wants the recognition. She wants to be famous. It’s tremendous when a screenplay has the ability to not only give character development such as that but puts faith in the audience to get it.

Never again will I wonder whether Shane Black knows how to write based solely on that one moment. Maybe he can’t get everything to work spot-on each time out, but that ability is in there somewhere. Enthusiastic praise indeed.

Nihilists might be cowards but at least they’re definable

Right now I’ll issue fair warning: here comes pseudo-analytical crap about a concept I haven’t yet fully grasped. You were warned.

There are theories film noir is not a genre but an era and, as such, there can be no such thing as “new” film noir. The films come from the bleak outlook on humanity immediately following World War II, and World War II could leave people with no way to look at humanity other than bleakly after more than 72 million people died between 1937 and 1945. I wish I understood better this theory to which I subscribe, but I have an offshoot of it. To properly make a “new” film noir, one needs to understand how film reflects its contemporary society and translate it in such a way contemporary society can grasp itself.

If we look at Harry, Harmony and Gay Perry, they are failures (Harry never finished anything), hungry for something better (Harry will try to do something other than steal, Harmony continues trying at age 34 even though it’s probably over), unquestionably more intelligent than the other person (Perry never misses a chance to tell Harry how stupid he is) and sarcastic (just about every single exchange). Crossing that against my remedial thoughts regarding Generation Y makes me think Black pretty well hit it.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang doesn’t use the stylized language of film noir the way Brick uses it, which sounds more like a ventriloquist dummy to film noir than it does film noir dialogue. It uses the language of its time, stylizes it and leaves the audience reveling in its authenticity. I admire one much more than the other, and I won’t be writing about Brick at length. Lucky Brick.

Maybe I shouldn’t leave that section in but I’m going to because the delete button is way the hell above the numbers and I’m lazy. The point: my opinion is Black gets closer to modernizing the concept of film noir than any movie I’ve seen that was made during my lifetime.

Be careful what you wish for

When they let Orson Welles loose with the world’s greatest train set he produced Citizen Kane. When they let Shane Black loose with $10 million he produced Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Be very clear here, Reader: I am not comparing the two in terms of quality, impact on cinema, potential for lasting praise or under any other condition other than free rein allowed both Welles and Black to make the movies they wanted to make. Sometimes good movies result from allowing someone to execute their actual vision rather than dressing up a writer’s screenplay as a pig and calling it Daisy Duke. When in doubt, kill a pig. If you took nothing else from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, at least know what to do when in doubt.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang doesn’t have a self-aware narrator. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang has a hyper self-aware narrator, one who consistently critiques himself (he doesn’t think much of himself in this role and rightly so), one who can’t get a linear story going right off the bat (I forgot about the blue robot) and one who can interact with the people on screen (the extras in front of the lens). And you’d better be on your game if you’re listening to the story because he’ll bust your chops if you happened to miss information that was given to you. That’s Black saying I’ll go for it and see what happens, and he pulled it off. Maybe it’s not something you particularly enjoy but if you get into it, the narration is a rather remarkable thing.

Want to know what Shane Black was thinking about when writing that “bad scene... like the shot of the cook in Hunt for Red October?” He was thinking about the cook in Hunt for Red October and, when writing that bad scene, decided to drop in the reference. I like to think he thought of himself as a magician putting the secret right out there for the audience to see without them being able to do a damn thing about it. I’d call that supreme confidence.

And the last bit of confidence I’d like to point out? When Perry comes back in at the end, when Harry laments at the inability of a studio to suffer through a downer ending, he says maybe we should just bring them all back. And by all he means everyone who died in the movie, Abraham Lincoln, some sort of dog and Elvis. It’s absolutely similar to Spielberg using the oxygen tank to blow up the shark in Jaws: if they have the audience by that point the audience will buy whatever they’re given.
There are problems? Yikes.

So it pains me to do it but I have to say I also have minor problems with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

There’s a boyfriend from Paris and he relates somehow to Dexter’s daughter, but it took too many times through the movie for me to get it. It’s important, but not important, and I’ve spent too much time on it now.

Perry slaps around Harmony’s father for what he did to Harmony’s sister and Perry says the father pulled the trigger but it took years for the bullet to hit. Shouldn’t Harmony also be held accountable for her sister’s death? She loaded her sister with lies about her would-be Hollywood father, lies that eventually took her sister to Hollywood, a search for her would-be Hollywood father and ultimate suicide when discovering her would-be Hollywood father’s would-be secret. If Harmony hadn’t lied, her sister would be a victim of abuse but wouldn’t have been a suicide. That matzo ball is too big; it’s too right there to be missed.

The body count is off. Harry and Harmony make a big deal about sixteen people dying at the end of a Johnny Gossamer novel but only eleven people die in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

So I can identify problems but in the cosmic ledger sheet what Kiss Kiss Bang Bang gets right outweighs what it gets wrong.


Oh, to hell with it. If you’ve made it this far I’m not going to make you read anything else. I saw the last Lord of the Rings. I know when to end it. Don’t forget to validate your parking.

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