Bohemian Rhapsody, A Thousand Clowns, and the Dangers of Film Enthusiasm

Bohemian Rhapsody, A Thousand Clowns, and the Dangers of Film EnthusiasmI visited my sister over the weekend and we went to see Bohemian Rhapsody. It wasn’t a thrilling idea for several reasons. I don’t like biopics. I rarely like big-budget Hollywood films. I’ve never been a huge Queen fan. But going to lame films is something I have always done for my family. (They have learned not to reciprocate because of long — For Them — painful experience.)

The film turned out to be far worse than I had expected. The main reason biopics usually suck is because they are redemption stories. Admittedly, redemption stories can be fantastic; for example, Ikiru is one of my favorite films ever.

But in Bohemian Rhapsody it is the total cliche: artist finds success; artist goes on tilt; artist finds redemption by not going on tilt. For anyone who cares, there is an episode of Behind the Music about Queen. And it has the major advantage of ruining only 45-minutes of your life. Bohemian Rhapsody is well over 2 hours long. And it feels much longer. (Dunbar in Catch-22 would have loved it!)

But the main thing that struck me while watching the film was not that it was bad. Not that there wasn’t much badness to strike me. Although I once admired director Bryan Singer, it has been many years. He is now a typical Hollywood hack. Things might have been better if Peter Morgan had been kept as screenwriter, but instead, Anthony McCarten was brought on board — likely to pacify the remaining members of Queen who seem to have been determined the movie be as inoffensive and boring as possible. The whole thing is typical Hollywood nonsense, so I can hardly complain that my experience of the film was alternating boredom and outrage.

Noticing Technique

The main thing that bugged me was how technically I watched Bohemian Rhapsody. I was constantly taken out of the film by this or that directorial flourish. And I have always hated that! Any time some critic or other film enthusiast makes a big deal about the technical side of a film, I know that they are not worth listening to.

And this is what Hollywood is all about. The studios are convinced that people come to their movies to see the spectacle. This is not my experience at all. I can’t speak for teens, but adults want to see a good story well told.

There was one very impressive shot toward the end of the film. Queen is playing at Live Aid. The camera starts under Freddy Mercury’s piano. It is then pushed forward between his legs and over to Brian May. Finally, it tilts up to a shot of May’s guitar. It took me a good minute to figure out two ways to recreate what I will admit was a very pleasing shot.

The Thousand Clowns Paradox

If anything, the shots like this ruin the rest of the film. (Or would have done so if the rest of the film had been good.) I call it the Thousand Clowns Paradox. After the first cut of the film, the screenwriter Herb Gardner was horrified. He had first written it as a play. When he wrote the screenplay, Gardner tried to expand it for the screen, but ultimately, A Thousand Clowns looks like a play on film.

So Gardner worked with editor Ralph Rosenblum (both were also co-producers) to create more cinematic scenes using stock footage and music. And they are sublime! But in the context of the film, they only serve to highlight just how boring the other scenes are.

Without those scenes, the viewer isn’t unsettled. They are able to appreciate the exceptional story.

Technique Isn’t Storytelling

So it bothers me to be reminded that I’m watching a film. It bothers me even more that I do appreciate technique. But I fear that is something I’m just going to have to live with given how much of a film geek I am. And it will only get worse.

This is not what film-viewing and filmmaking should be. There is a common saying about editing a picture: you have to kill your darlings. The idea is that because of the filmmakers’ love of a scene, it stays in the edit, even though it is creating problem for the film as a whole. Usually, this is a matter of pacing. But I think this is also because of the Thousand Clowns Paradox. Sadly, fewer and fewer filmmakers hold to this.

Big-budget movies are made by huge egos. And that results in over-long movies filled with beautiful but worthless shots. It explains why I would rather watch any Howard Hawks or Russ Meyer film than almost anything at the local multiplex.

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