Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Hound of the Baskervilles: Point of view

I will get to this week's discussion of Hound via Transsiberian. I mean Transsiberian the film, of course! Like most people I had never heard of this 2008 film, and that's because it opened the same day as Dark Knight. We watched it last night; in accordance with the consensus on IMDB, I thought it was a little better than average. However, there was a certain moment about 1/3 of the way in that put me in mind of how very difficult it is to narrate a thriller/mystery.

Roy, played by Woody Harrelson as a less sophisticated version of his Woody-the-bartender character on Cheers,* is taking the Transsiberian railway back from China with his wife, Jessie (Emily Mortimer). They share a compartment with a young couple, Carlos the Suspicious Spaniard and his girlfriend, Abby. Now, there are a few reasons Carlos is suspicious. He knows a lot about crossing borders while evading scrutiny by customs. He lugs around a cache of matryoshka dolls, which he shows to Jessie but not to Roy, or, it turns out, to Abby. Carlos is showing a tad too much interest in Jessie. Abby is unhappy.

But then the movie gives us a false reason to suspect him. While the train is stopped at a station, Roy, a train buff, heads off to see some old trains in the yard, and Carlos goes with him. While Roy is enthusing over some gizmo, we see Carlos, behind him, pulling a metal railing loose. He bangs it on the ground as Roy trots ahead, and...end of scene. In the next scene everyone is back on the train except Roy. Carlos insists that Roy wandered off and probably lost track of time; he and the train personnel are certain he'll be on the next train (arriving tomorrow), so the three other main characters get off at the next stop to wait for him at a hotel. But Jessie can't send him a message or receive one from him ("Thees ees Rah-shah," the hotel manager keeps saying, while shrugging). Meanwhile Carlos, as we later learn, has taken the opportunity to stash his matryoshkas in Jessie's luggage, and they're not dolls so much as they are compressed and painted gobs of heroin. Before we discover that, though, Carlos convinces Jessie to take a long walk in the woods with him, where they come upon an interesting old church, where Carlos and Jessie start kissing, only Jessie changes her mind and Carlos tries to force himself on her and Jessie beats him to death. OK, so: Carlos killed Roy, right?

No, Roy is on the next train. I suppose you could imagine that Carlos meant to kill Roy but didn't have the opportunity. But he had the perfect opportunity in the train yard, and Roy's absence from the train seems to accomplish what he set out to do, which was to separate him from Jessie. Also, Roy, as oblivious as he is, might have noticed someone trying to whack him with a length of metal pipe. Carlos's grabbing the pipe, followed by Roy's absence from the train, is a trick on the audience, and nothing more. The real action is yet to come, with Jessie trying to hide the fact that she killed Carlos, and get rid of the dolls, while the ominous Ben Kingsley, supposedly some kind of cop, is on her trail.

We see these tricks all the time, especially in movies. They're meant to make us jump or to feel foreboding, like thunder or lights flickering or unintelligible whispers in a hallway. But they also feel unfair, because we know the storyteller knows they lead nowhere. The storyteller is blatantly manipulating us, which is sometimes OK if it's done especially elegantly, but it usually isn't. And one reason we feel manipulated is that the film medium tends to suggest direct access to what's actually happening. We aren't seeing the events through a single character's point of view; we're seeing the events themselves. If those events turn out not to be true, we sense the storyteller/filmmaker is dishonest.

Conan Doyle, in the Sherlock Holmes tales, gets around this problem by having Watson be his narrator. Watson works especially well in this role because he's a participant-observer. He does a lot of the sleuthing himself, as in Hound, when Holmes sends him off to Baskerville Hall to learn as much as he can while Holmes is doing other stuff back in London. Watson collects his observations meticulously, knowing Holmes will question him about everything, and he also ventures some interpretations. Many of these interpretations will necessarily turn out to be wrong, but when they do, we won't feel tricked--because the point-of-view character was only speculating. We trust Watson; we know he's doing his best, so his mistakes are honest ones. He's not deliberately misleading us, even though the author can use Watson, up to a point, for that very purpose.

The bad news is that if we contemporary writers try to adopt too obvious a Watson figure to tell our own mystery stories, everyone will probably realize we've stolen him or her from Conan Doyle--unless we make it clear we know we've stolen him, in which case, fine. But for mystery writing, some kind of competent, honest, but necessarily unreliable narrator seems like a good bet. I don't know how you would accomplish the same thing on film. There really is a sense that the movie camera is omniscient, which make any false threats, or cuts at the crucial moment, feel cheap.

*By the way, when is Woody Harrelson going to age? Is he just an excellent advertisement for veganism, or is something more sinister afoot?

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