Sunday, November 21, 2010

Parsing the mechanics of High Concept

Admit it, the first time you saw the trailer for Keenan Ivory Wayans’ “Little Man,” you did a double take, turned to the person next to you and said, “What the $@#&?” As tiny “baby-faced” thief Calvin Sims, Marlon Wayans’ face is CGI’d onto a little person’s body, something that just doesn’t look right. At all. But that doesn’t stop an adoptive family and all their friends from thinking the freaky little dude is actually a baby. And wacky chaos ensues!

It’s what’s known in Hollywood as “High Concept,” a film that can be aptly summed up in one sentence, the fewer words the better (“Little person poses as baby”). The common wisdom is that simple concepts make easy-to-sell movies (and also that studio executives are too busy / too stupid to take the time to listen to a complicated pitch about a film with a dense plot and nuanced characters).

One could argue that High Concept has been around since the dawn of film, but it’s really been since the late ‘70s, when marketing and merchandising became as important as storytelling that HC became pre-eminent. “Flash Gordon meets cowboy movie” sound like something you’ve seen? It’s called “Star Wars.” “’Jaws’ in a haunted house in space?” That would be “Alien.” “’Alien’ as a war picture?” Hello, “Aliens.” It’s that simple.

See if you can name the following movies based on these brief descriptions:
1) Bus with a bomb.
2) Cop and bad guy switch faces.
3) Serial killer bases his murders on the seven deadly sins.
4) Human adopted by elves seeks his roots.

Do we really need to supply the answers? Okay, in order, “Speed,” “Face/Off,” “Se7en” and “Elf.”

Now try to name the movie that matches the following descriptions:

1) Outsider teen struggles to find his place in the world.
2) Man’s past comes back to haunt him.
3) Racial differences impact members of a community.
4) Quirky family struggles with dysfunction.

We were thinking of “Rushmore,” “A History of Violence,” “Crash” and “The Royal Tenenbaums,” but those descriptions could also apply to “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Citizen Kane,” “Do the Right Thing” and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” in addition to hundreds more.

What separates those eight films from High Concept is that they’re built on characterization rather than plot. Which is different from being built on the personality of an ACTOR, another realm of the High Concept.

Lot of HC films have been built around a hot movie star, either playing to their perceived strengths or placing them in a seemingly incongruous role. Jim Carrey as God! (“Bruce Almighty”); Robin Williams in drag! (“Mrs. Doubtfire”); Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny Devito are fraternal twins! (“Twins”); Vin Diesel as a nanny! (“The Pacifier”)

The cinematic results are usually pretty putrid if the flavor of the month isn’t an actor. Witness Vanilla Ice as a rebel without a cause (“Cool as Ice”)... Shaquille O’Neal as a genie! (“Kazaam”)... Justin Guarini and Kelly Clarkson as a Frankie and Annette for the aughts! (“From Justin to Kelly”) and “Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector” (a movie that made us pine for the cinematic genius of the Ernest series).

It’s not uncommon for high concept films to produce offspring. Tons of movies have been sold by the equation 1 [high concept movie] + (different setting) or (another seemingly incongruous high concept movie). For instance, “Road Warrior” at sea begets “Waterworld.” “Die Hard” on a plane makes “Passenger 57.” “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” plus “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” equals “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” “Titanic” meets “The Shining” and gives us “Ghost Ship.”

Some HC films are the result of an attempt to turn a hot aspect of popular culture into a movie.... even if it’s something without any narrative potential. Things such as trading cards (“The Garbage Pail Kids Movie”), The Jerry Springer Show (“Ringmaster”) or Mariah Carey’s career (“Glitter”), not to mention almost every single movie based on a “Saturday Night Live” sketch (Try saying “It’s Pat” without shuddering).

This is not to say that all high concept flicks have to suck. It all depends on who makes the movie. 1993’s “Groundhog Day” (Man is forced to relive one day over and over) boasts a clever script and terrific casting anchored by Bill Murray’s first nuanced performance, turning that film into an HC classic. 1988’s “Die Hard” is such a perfect high concept (Lone man takes on group of terrorists) that it’s inspired dozens of retreads, all of them lacking the characterization and believability (within context) of John McTiernan’s original.

Of course, there are entire genres of film that are inherently high concept, mostly science fiction, horror and low-budget cult films. It’s hard to think of a movie in any of those categories that CAN’T be summed up in one sentence, with the exception of headier fare like “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “The Wicker Man” or “The Big Crimewave.”

But with more tiresome HC movies, it almost feels as if screenwriters wrote down random nouns, conjunctions, verbs and adjectives on index cards, tacked them all up on a bulletin board, blindfolded themselves and just start throwing darts. DRAGONS - IN - FUTURE (“Reign of Fire”); MONKEY - PLAYS - BASEBALL (“Ed”); SMART - SHARKS (“Deep Blue Sea”); TALKING - BABIES (“Baby Geniuses”). Yeesh.

But every once in a while, High Concept can be (at least in theory) genius. Like the notion of one of a million word-processing monkeys eventually writing Hamlet, the perfect alignment of darts hit SNAKES - ON - PLANE and gave the world the upcoming “Snakes on a Plane,” a notion so succinct, so perfect in its combining of numerous primal fears (flying, snakes, claustrophobia, death) that it became an instant phenomenon based on the title alone.

Of course, the downside is that “Snakes on a Plane” will undoubtedly launch a new wave of imitative HC films about terrifying creatures infesting modes of transportation. We’re gonna get a jump on the competition and go ahead and pitch “Spiders on a Bus,” “Rats on a Train” and “Screaming Babies in a Hummer.”

Hollywood, we await our check.

POSTSCRIPT, November 2010:
Wow, that SNAKES ON A PLANE didn't live up to the hype, huh?

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