If there were a verb meaning “to believe falsely,” it would not have any significant first person, present indicative
—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
I’ve already discussed the main Oscar contenders, and will be writing up a post on the remaining biopics soon, but before that I wanted to spill some ink on what is my favorite film of the Best Picture nominees: Whiplash. As I sat enjoying Marion Cotillard’s performance in Two Days, One Night, I was struck by the fact that it is told in the first person, and realized that that perspective is also the one presented in Whiplash and is perhaps one reason I enjoyed both films so much.
There is a certain intimacy that first-person narrative lends a film; it forces you to identify with the main character as you experience the same things he or she does. I should note that by “first person” I’m not referring strictly to a voiceover narrative or actual perspective, since that is truly difficult to achieve in a motion picture, but in the sense that all of the scenes include the main character.
By default, this means the viewer is in the dark about what the protagonist is in the dark about, and I think that this lack of background knowledge gives many of these films a tension lacking in more mainstream fare. Too often, filmmakers forget that we audience members don’t really need every single thing spelled out for us. This was reinforced by my recent viewing of The Imitation Game, with its completely unnecessary bits of war footage. Or Wild, which by necessity used flashbacks to avoid endless voiceover, but in my opinion used far too many and lost the impact of the grueling hike.
But, back to Whiplash. If this movie is playing anywhere near you, I highly encourage you to get out and see it. Whiplash has a tremendous energy that is only emphasized by seeing it in a theater. If you think the idea of a film centered on a perfectionist jazz drummer and his teacher sounds boring, believe me, it isn’t. And I really, really don’t like jazz. I’ve heard this film described as a military training montage crossed with Fame and that is probably the most perfect pitch description I’ve ever heard.
Whiplash is likely to win J. K. Simmons an Oscar for his performance as the teacher this Sunday, but Miles Teller is also extraordinary as the student. (Teller was also compelling in both The Spectacular Now and Divergent, so it will be interesting to see where this relatively young actor goes from here.)
Of course, first-person narratives necessitate an extraordinary actor and performance because so much of the storytelling devolves to them. While some might have been surprised by Marion Cotillard’s nomination for Two Days, One Night, I don’t think anyone who saw the film was. In fact, I’m willing to bet that if this film was centered on a man, it would have gotten a lot more attention. But that’s a story for another day. Suffice it to say that this simple concept, a woman visiting her coworkers one by one over the weekend to plead her case, was brilliantly executed from start to finish.
However, these aren’t the only two 2014 films to focus so intensely on their protagonist. Boyhood also unfolds as a first-person narrative. In fact, the key to its success lies with the fact that we are simply experiencing Mason’s life from moment to moment, year by year, without grand explanations as to what has happened in the interval.
Ida, an absolutely gorgeous, powerful film nominated for both foreign film and cinematography, is mostly told in the first person as well, though a key shot is distinctly not. The few other bits we see that are not in Ida’s presence are unnecessary, and eliminating them might have made that key shot have that much more impact. Regardless, you can, and should, catch Ida on Netflix streaming. It definitely would win my vote for cinematography.
Two other exceptional films that were eligible for nominations (but unfortunately didn’t receive any) also focus almost exclusively on their protagonists to great effect. The very premise of Under the Skin is experiencing the gaze of Scarlett Johansson’s character and her understanding of the world around her. While we do see the motorcycle rider and her victims apart from her—and that is crucial information for the viewer—it is clear that she is very aware of their actions and fates.
Finally, like Under the Skin, Blue Ruin uses the destabilizing effect of the first-person narrative to keep the viewer on the edge of his or her seat. You don’t ever really know where this film is going or what the protagonist (played impeccably by Macon Blair) may do next, mostly because he doesn’t seem to. If you think revenge is a dish best served bloody and/or love the Coen Brothers, this film is for you.
Both these films are chilling in their own way and they really stay with you. Either one would easily make my Top Ten of 2014 and should have received multiple nominations.