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Some Ramblings - Michael Clayton
By Srinivas Kanchibhotla
Michael Clayton

Genre movies are typified by the strict adherence to the established standards. Sport movies - the garden variety - start the movie with an athlete who has past his prime, trying to hang on the last vestiges of his credibility; supply him the motivation, either via a new character that comes into his life (usually, a brash protege) or because of a career choice that causes him to start at the bottom of the ladder; then build him up in a final act towards a redemption that is both personal and universally appealing (Ex: The Natural, Tin Cup, Bull Durham, Hoosiers and many such). Now the romantic comedy - start with 2 characters that are at either ends of the poles, setup the reasons for why they could never be together, cause the situations for them to come together to have a closer look at each other and have a change of hearts, tug them apart from one final time, before letting them back in each others arms for the final flourish. While setting out to make a genre movie, one needs to make sure that the rules are adhered to, by checking off all the requisite items that need to occur at regular intervals, giving the audience the expected twists and turns, before trying it all the end neatly in a bow-tie. And it is not just with the age-old established genres - action, romance, comedy, sports, horror etc - that there are time-tested rules and universally recognized templates. They apply even to the new age genres like animations and blockbusters (yes, they have become their own genres). Setup, complication and resolution - the three act structure that has become that Holy Grail for all kind of stories, be it in the publishing world on in the celluloid medium (and if last year's brilliant movie "The Prestige" is to be taken into account, even in the world of magic too, except the three acts here are called "The Pledge" (setting up the reality), "The Turn" (challenging the reality), and "The Prestige" (restoring the original status). Rarely do movies come along that challenge this structure and try to rise above the rules, and end up as exemplars themselves.

Tarantino "Pulp Fiction" was one such. At the end of the movie, it becomes difficult to categorize it under one particular genre. Is it an action piece? a thriller? a comedy? or a contemplative study? It doesn't follow the 3 act structure, in that there are no setups, no explicit conflicts and no overt resolutions. It does not stick to a single story line from start to finish. It does not have an identifiable hero/heroine who undergoes an emotional transformation (which, as the rules state, is the purpose of a movie). In spite of all of the above, "Pulp Fiction" became a genre of its own, in which a bunch of questionable characters, from diverse walks of life, happen to criss-cross each others paths at indeterminate time intervals, affecting each others lives and fates in ways beyond their imagination. And if all this could happen with snappy dialogue, comedic action and sudden bursts of sporadic violence, the movie is said to be paying a rich homage to "Pulp Fiction" (if the end result is palatable) or a cheap imitation of the same (if the experiment has turned sour). It is quite difficult and daring to side-step the accepted norms and chart out new territories, and request the audience to take a leap of faith and proceed along the new path. Until Stanley Kubrick's "2001:A Space Odyssey", space movies meant 2 things alone - humans warring with the aliens and winning over the worlds or humans exploring new planets, discovering new civilizations and bringing the alien friends back to the earth. And then arrived "2001", which strayed from the conventional path and treated space odyssey as a journey of the Man himself, from the pre-historic ages of the apes to the new age of enlightenment, with each step of evolution charting his progress in intellect and maturity, to finally transform (evolve) into a superhuman (the Nietzsche's superman). "2001" thus redefined the genre to show way to many other space exploratory movies that wanted to follow suit by making the journey into space a deeply introspective and a personal journey. Ex: Contact.

Continuing in the same vein, legal thrillers (courtroom dramas) have been the staple genre of Hollywood ever since its inception. The mere process of the trial itself lends itself quite easily to fall into the 3 act structure without even trying. At the start of the trial, all the concerned characters are called into question (implicitly providing the setup); as the trial gets underway, the audience gets to know the meat of the case (supplying the necessary complication); and in the final act, the brilliance of the trial lawyer saves the day, either by winning the case in a just way ("The Verdict") or by blowing away the opposition to smithereens ("A Few Good Men"). Ever since John Grisham burst onto the publishing scene with his wildly popular courtroom thrillers, that covered just about every aspect that is involved in the trial process - the lawyers, the judges, the jurors, even the bailiffs and the sketch artists, and Hollywood's faithful adaptations of the many of them, legal thrillers have been rechristened as Grisham's genre. If the movie deals with lawyers, start him off as a fresh graduate or someone new to the practice, throw the bad guys in the mix to cause the crime and the ensuing trial, pitt him against the cynical experienced opposition counsel in the courtroom to spar, and make him emerge as the eventual winner ("The Firm", "The Rainmaker", "The Chamber", "A Time of Kill" etc). However much the cases were interesting and the villains, ranging from Tobacco industry, Insurance industry, Gun Lobby etc were colorful, the path became too predictable and beaten so much so that the whole genre begged to be redefined. Steven Soderbergh's "Erin Brockovich" infused a new lease of life into the ailing category, by handling the now cliched 'small people vs big evil companies' theme in a refreshing manner, by concentrating on the events that surround the case and the investigative research that goes into the building of the same, than pegging the whole dramatic denouement around the final climactic moments inside the courtroom (with cymbals crashing and trumpets blaring). It does that by finding its emotional core in the stark realism of the case, which ironically, plays more dramatically than scripted drama.

"Michael Clayton" is not just another trite tired exercise in the famed legal thriller arena, but rather plays it out like a jigsaw puzzle, arranging its pieces ever so carefully (even at the expense of a little clarity at first), building the case (and the picture) in bits and pieces, finally ending up with the complete picture, where every piece fits neatly and perfectly, with no piece left unused and unwanted. It shows the maker in great control of his material refusing to show his hand at once, instead engaging the viewer to keep in step with the proceedings on the screen. The brilliance of "Michael Clayton" is not of the actual underlying material (which is a pretty straightforward 'small people vs big evil company' theme), but of the way the director moves each of the pieces in place simultaneously from all the different angles (resembling a great chess game), to show how the case is closing in equally on the plaintiffs, the legal teams involved, the accused party, and other bit players in the game. The pacing, proceedings and the preparations that happen behind the closed door remind of Steven Zallian's "A Civil Action", where a law professor, hired to represent the accused big evil company, teaches his students in the classroom what not to do as trial lawyers in the courtrooms (like "do not ask questions whose answers you are not sure about", "Pride has lost more cases for lawyers than idiot witnesses and bad judges put together"), only to find the opponent heroic lawyer (representing the small guys) commit those exact mistakes for unsavory results. Tony Gilroy, the writer of the Jason Bourne movies, brings the same realism of Bourne movies to "Michael Clayton", along with its sparse (yet brilliant) dialogue, relying more on the imagery and the talent of the great character actors that occupy the frame, to get the point across. The dialogue needs special mention for its precision and exacting nature, that is as brutal, as cynical and as truthful as it is cunning, manipulative and evasive - usually expected of people in the legal profession in the real world.

A few years ago Cameron Crowe's "Jerry Maguire" transcended the sports genre by ignoring the genre rules and indulging in what was right for the character, making it a sports movie, a romantic movie, a comedy movie, and above all, a touching movie, all at the same time. The perverse pleasure that lies in intermingling genres and pulling it off successfully proves a satisfying experience for the makers and gratifying experiece for the audience. Here is one more that adds to the list. "Michael Clayton" is as much a legal thriller, as it is a character piece, it as much indulges in the genre as it transcends it, it is as much about the legal battles as it is about the call of conscience. Quite a feat, that!

More Ramblings on films
Happy Days
Chak De India!
The Bourne Ultimatum
The Simpsons Movie
The Grindhouse
Casino Royale
The Departed
Lage Raho Munnabhai
Superman Returns
The Da Vinci Code
Sri Ramadasu
Rang De Basanti (Hindi)
Jai Chiranjeeva!
Munich (English)
Sarkar (Hindi)
Mangal Padey (Hindi)
Kaadhal (Tamil)
Anukokunda Oka Roju
Batman Begins (English)
Radha Gopalam
Mughal E Azam
Virumandi (Tamil)
Lakshya (Hindi)
Yuva (Hindi)
Kakha Kakha (Tamil)
Mr & Mrs Iyer
Nuvve Nuvve

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This article is written by Srinivas Kanchibhotla
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