In judging a film that uses a strange device, experimental technique, or oddball eccentricity there is a single question to consider that almost always separates the great films from the mediocre: Is the gimmick in service of the story or is the story in service of the gimmick? Is the film utilizing an innovative technique to enhance a compelling story or have they stumbled upon a neat trick with which they want to play?
George Lucas, in one of his moments of Yoda-like wisdom once nailed the issue: "A special effect is a tool, a means of telling a story. A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing."
Let's consider a few examples. One strong gimmick is utilized in "Pleasantville" and "Sin City." Both films primarily feature black and white photography with various people and objects in color. It's used especially well in both films for different purposes. And it's safe to say that the stories and characters are solid enough to sustain the film.
Two more films who properly use their gimmick are "Waking Life" and "A Scanner Darkly." Both films directed by Richard Linklater ("Dazed and Confused," "School of Rock." "Before Sunset,") were shot with digital cameras. The footage was then given to artists who digitally painted each frame. The result is a wild, colorful animated effect. "Waking Life" is a discussion, philosophy-based film where characters discuss dreams and life. The filming technique helps establish a dreamy atmosphere and liven up the extended sequences of people talking. "A Scanner Darkly" uses the animation to depict the effects of futuristic drugs.
But photographic and innovation techniques are certainly not the only gimmick. One that gets used every now and then in the world of foreign, independent, and art films is perhaps the hardest gimmick to properly utilize: un-simulated sex. Starting with the early ‘90s a year has not go by with at least one art film that feels the need for the actors to actually have sex. Some of the more prominent examples of this phenomenon include "Romance," "Pola X, "Ken Park," "Baise Moi," "The Brown Bunny," and "9 Songs." The upcoming film "Shortbus" by director John Cameron Mitchell ("Hedwig and the Angry Inch") will be the newest film to join the club. I'm all for directors pursuing their artistic vision, but it's hard to see a tangible effect that comes with un-simulated scenes. Perhaps the most high profile of these films is "The Brown Bunny" in which Chloe Sevigny - an Oscar-nominated actress for "Boys Don't Cry" - performs an un-simulated sex act. And for what? Not much. I suppose it's fine if it's not utilized in a gimmick-like way. "Romance" and "Ken Park" are both films by two of the best, boldest auteurs in the world (Catherine Breillat and Larry Clark.) They do not necessarily need the real sex. "The Brown Bunny," "9 Songs," and "Baise Moi," however, would be absolutely nothing - no attention whatsoever - without the real sex.
The reigning king of the gimmick screenplay is Charlie Kaufman. With his screenplays "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation" he became one of the most celebrated of writers. He crafted two quirky, original scripts with absurd elements and scenarios. With as unique as those films are there's a problem: the actual stories themselves are not all that amazing. Especially with "Being John Malkovich" just watch the film and try and spot an engaging character. Now, of course, both films prompted cries of joy from the critical establishment - 92 percent positive reviews for "Malkovich" and 90 percent for "Adaptation." Note, though, how often the film is praised for its originality and its off-the-wall character. (One of my personal theories about many film critics is that when a movie comes along that does something especially different or innovative they tend to go gaga over it whether or not the movie itself is good enough. They see so many generic, lousy, by-the-numbers movies that something that throws a curve ball is a welcome surprise to be cherished.)
Kaufman certainly succeeded when he collaborated for a second time with French director Michel Gondry. (Their first effort - "Human Nature" - was not very well received.) "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" earned $72 million dollars worldwide and won the Oscar for best original screenplay. And it's a great film - not for its weirdness but because the story and the characters are rich and wonderful. Gondry - a master of wild special effects and visual tricks - employed his magic to depict Jim Carrey running about inside his own head, trying to hide memories of his girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) from being erased. It was one of 2004's sweetest love stories.
And that brings us up to date: Gondry and his new film "The Science of Sleep." Gondry revisits territory he explored in "Eternal Sunshine." Like the protagonist in "Eternal Sunshine," Stephane (Bernal) spends much of the movie inside his own head. Twenty-something Stephane returns to Paris to live with his mother after his father dies in Mexico. Anticipating a job that fosters his artistic talents he instead finds that he'll be gluing headings to calendars in a small basement filled with eccentric co-workers. He finds some degree of comfort from his lousy job in Stephanie, the young woman living across the hall from him. A quirky friendship develops as the two create art scenes and silly inventions. Things grow more complicated as Stephane's dream life starts blurring with his waking life. Colorful childlike special effects appear out of nowhere. His struggle with his dreams only makes his romantic pursuit.
Those familiar with the work and aesthetics of Gondry will see plenty of familiar images. Gondry first made his name as a music video director. A collection of his favorite videos which also includes a 75-minute documentary is available. Some of the musicians he has worked with include the White Stripes, Bjork, the Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk, Foo Fighters, Beck, Kylie Minogue, and Oui Oui.
One of my favorite bits in the film is recycled from Gondry's Foo Fighters video of the song "Everlong." The video features characters in bed whose dreams bleed into their real life. In the dream the lead singer of the Foo Fighters must protect his girlfriend from three punks: his hand grows to an enormous size and he smacks them repeatedly. In "Sleep" one of Stephane's dreams features him with gigantic hands swatting at his co-workers. It's the aesthetic of his earliest music video work that perhaps shines through the most in the film. In his first videos - those made for Oui Oui from the late ‘80s to mid ‘90s he primarily uses stop-motion animation with cute, arty little characters.
The Directors Series that released Gondry's music videos on DVD have given other directors the same treatment, namely Spike Jonze, Chris Cunningham, Mark Romanek Anton Corbijn, Jonathan Glazer, and Stephane Sednaoui. Gondry is second only to Romanek who directed the greatest music video of all time - "Hurt" by Johnny Cash. Now, the music video is a different form of media that possesses rules apart from narrative filmmaking. With the music video there is not a conflict between story and gimmick. And that's because music videos do not have stories - unless the director and band want there to be one. No, with music videos you want a good gimmick whether it be a visual style or a singular point of attention.
There are several good examples of this in Gondry's filmography. There's the White Stripes' "Fell in Love with a Girl" where Jack and Meg White and the entire video are done in lego animation. Or there's Kylie Minogue's "Come into My World" which features a single which features Minogue walking around a street in Paris. As she returns to the door where she first emerged a second Kylie Minogue emerges. Then in walking around a second time there are two of all the people and objects, then another Minogue and three of everything. Just fantastic videos.
Now, give this director a great script and some decent actors and you're in for a treat. That's what happened with "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" - a sweet love story with Carrey, Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst, Tom Wilkinson, David Cross and Elijah Wood. Now... what if instead we got a single great actor - Bernal - and Gondry wrote the script himself? You end up with quite a mess.
Like a dream, the film goes in all kinds of nonsensical directions. Also like a dream, you're not really plugged into what's happening. It's hard to grab onto these characters and feel their experience. In fact they're really not all that interesting of characters with whom to spend two hours. All you really have are the cute special effects and neat little things that happen. And dreams are supposed to be fun! As the film dragged on I just grew more and more tired of Bernal's weak little character.
So that pretty much settles it. "The Science of Sleep" is a film where the story is in service of the gimmick. Hopefully Gondry will let someone else write the script for his next movie.