Monday, August 01, 2005

The Aviator

Last night my wife and I watched The Aviator, the bio-flick of Howard Hughes that starred Leonardo DiCaprio. I should say on the front end that I know very little about Howard Hughes, other than the fact that he was one of the richest men in the country during World War II and was something of a playboy. I didn't realize he had such a strong tie to aviation, even though apparently he was head of TransWorld Airlines and flew the Spruce Goose (I knew he had paid for it, but I didn't realize he was a pilot himself).

I really wanted to like this movie. It won five Academy Awards, so how bad could it be? Pretty bad, it seems. I really don't understand how Academy Awards are given out. While there are notable exceptions (Titanic comes to mind), it seems that most Academy Award-winning films don't appeal to me in the slightest. In the case of The Aviator, after two hours and forty-five minutes of watching this "epic," I was still waiting for the story to begin. I've been trying to figure out why I hated the movie so much, when given my interests and background, it arguably should have been right up my alley. I've finally decided that this was an example of an "advanced" story structure of the type referred to by both Maass and Dibell in their books (see my earlier entries for more on that topic). The Aviator really has no plot. The director is, I believe, unapologetic about that fact. Instead, the sense of movement that a story requires is provided by watching scenes from Hughes life and delving deeper into his character and deteriorating mental state. But as I've said before, plotless movies bore me beyond belief. Frankly, I didn't find DiCaprio's protrayal of Hughes to be convincing at all. When the entire movie is essentially a series of character portraits, you'd better make bloody sure you've got an incredibly strong character actor. DiCaprio just isn't it.

Many subplots are introduced in the film, and virtually none of them are resolved. What happened to Faith, the 15 year old that Hughes shacked up with? Kate Hepburn comes back to thank Hughes for covering up hers and Spencer Tracy's affair (Hepburn was engaged to Hughes previously), but absolutely nothing is done with this scene. The movie ends with the first flight of the Spruce Goose but doesn't go into why the aircraft was ultimately a failure -- they make it out to be Hughes great triumph. None of the subplots are tied up, and because there is no main plot, you're left wondering what the point of the movie is. One might think that the main plot is Hughes' mental deterioration, but just when his mind is at its worst (supposedly), he appears before a congressional commission and gets the better of his senator adversary through his skillful logic and speech. Did it really happen that way? I don't know. Maybe it did. But even if true, the movie doesn't portray it in a believable way.

The Aviator achieved much acclaim and critical success, so I suppose I shouldn't recommend against the techniques used in the film. But I will anyway. I think its success had more to do with the director, star, and amount of money spent on the picture than on any inherent worth. I'm at a loss to explain it otherwise. In general, I firmly believe that non-plot based stories simply do not work for the vast majority of your potential readership. Character set pieces are fine, but only if they contribute to the overall building of momentum in the story, something The Aviator seems to intentionally avoid. If you introduce a subplot, for Heaven's sake, resolve those plotlines! If the resolution of the subplots isn't important to your story, why is it in there in the first place? In spite of the cheering of the critics for this movie, I think it is utterly forgettable. Watch the film, but watch it as an example of what not to do in your own work.

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