Kent Tessman, 2008

Continuing with what has apparently become Toronto Week...

Kent Tessman is an impressive dude. If I were to tell you that I'd just seen a movie that had been written, directed, edited, scored, and produced by the same guy, you'd say, oh, so, like, a 13-year-old with a camcorder then. But if I were to tell you that, no, that same guy had also created, from scratch, one of the big three interactive fiction programming languages — the most full-featured one, at least at the time of its initial release — and had also picked up an MBA along the way just for kicks, you'd have to say, wow, that's pretty good for a 13-year-old, and I can see how he could afford that camcorder. And I can understand the skepticism! I have seen my share of independent films that were not exactly, as the kids say, profesh. But this is a real movie. It even has the late Maury Chaykin in it. (He wasn't dead then.)

Reminiscent of The Usual Suspects with a soupçon of The Big Lebowski thrown in, Bull is about a doughy Toronto stockbroker who, he confesses, isn't very good at broking stocks. When the elderly founding partner of his firm finally kicks and a young hotshot with questionable ethics moves into the top chair, our nebbishy protagonist finds the Mounties police dropping by to ask whether he's noticed any shady figures dropping by the office or locked briefcases changing hands. Incidentally, the reason I'm able to give you such a concise and authoritative summary of this movie is that I watched it twice. The first time I watched it I didn't really know what the hell was going on.

Just a couple of weeks ago I wrote about how I liked a particular type of plot twist: something happens, and in retrospect you can see that there was an obvious trail of clues just screaming that it was going to happen, but at the time you didn't even realize that they were clues. I think something like that is supposed to be operating here. There are big revelations near the end and it seems like you're supposed to say, "Ohhh, that's what that was!" Whereas I was more like, "Uh, okay, what was that?" Let me give you an example — one that's not too big a spoiler, I hope. So it's the 26-minute mark, and Charlie the stockbroker finds that these detectives want to talk to him. They show him a photo and ask whether he's seen the man it depicts. We get a flashback to Charlie riding in an elevator with that very guy. I didn't remember this at all. On my second viewing, sure enough, right at the four-minute mark there's Charlie in the elevator with that guy. My question is, was I really supposed to register that?

One of the things I like about comics is that you can sit and look at a panel, take in the details, let it sink in, and move on to the next one when you're ready. But film is temporal. It just blows right on by whether you're ready or not. I usually spend the beginning of a movie desperately trying to get my bearings and often failing — like, when I watched The Departed it took me something like 45 minutes to realize that Matt Damon and Leonardo di Caprio weren't the same guy. I'm supposed to remember some random in an elevator at the four-minute mark who goes basically uncommented upon? I'm too busy thinking, "Okay, the doughy guy is Charlie... he's Charlie... he's a stockbroker... his name is Charlie..." Even in comics, I need some help to make things stick: in the article I linked above, I talked about a clue that I remembered because, while I didn't know that it was a clue at the time, the characters had spent a fair chunk of one of the strips joking about it. The clues in Bull are waaaaay too subtle.

Of course, that makes the second time through the movie quite enjoyable! I spent pretty much my whole repeat viewing thinking, "Wow, look at that subtle thing in the background there! That's gonna be really important later!" and "Dang, this conversation is really thematically rich! Every line has a double meaning!" I couldn't believe that when, half an hour through my first viewing, Elizabeth had asked me what I was up to, I'd told her that I was watching a movie but that nothing really seemed to have happened yet — the second time around I could see that by that point about fifty different dominoes had been set up to be knocked over at the end. I still don't think I get 100% of what happens — actually, I have only a shaky guess at what's going on in the last couple of minutes — but the part I do now understand impressed me with its tightly woven plot and the amount of substance worked into what is essentially a puzzle movie. (I suspect that Mike D'Angelo would be a big fan.) So how do I evaluate this, given that had I watched this in a theater rather than renting it on Amazon for a week, I would have headed home thinking, "A few interesting moments but impossible to follow"? I dunno. In the past I've criticized academics for paying insufficient attention to the fact that most reads are first reads, not rereads... I think the same might apply here. Or maybe I'm just a dumbass.

A few other assorted comments:

Bull is listed most places as a comedy/drama, and there is a fair amount of humor in it, especially in the first half. But here's the thing. Kent Tessman was quite possibly the funniest guy on ifMUD back when I used to hang out there a lot. His jokes were beautiful pieces of comedy writing. This isn't the funniest, but it's fairly typical of his style:

I think the thing is that people who are "against" baby seal hunting have just never done it, you know? Never stood on an iceberg turning slowly red beneath your mukluks with a baby in one hand and a big fucking carton of poutine in the other, feeling alive and well-fed and warm and fashionable, and the baby seal's tongue lolling out one corner of its mouth in — is it? yes, it is — admiration, you non-baby-seal-killing sissies who don't know what it is to fucking live, to dare to be happy, to take nature by its droopy cheeks and slap the annoying freaking "majesty" out of it, or at least the small cuddly defenseless part of it. Maybe.

The problem is that while that sort of thing is funny to read, it sounds weird when performed. The character of the slick new boss is introduced to us through a long rant about lawyers; it sounds like what it is, a long paragraph scripted quite some time before. The same is true even of a lot of the shorter quips. At one point two characters are talking. One says the other should stop worrying. "Just like that?" the second one scoffs. The first one replies, "Well, it's gotta be just like something." That is a great line! In a speech bubble in a graphic novel, it'd be perfect. Spoken aloud... no, it's just too clearly scripted to ring true.

Note that this is not because the actors are bad — I seem to recall complaining about the cast in Kent's previous movie, Apartment Story, but this is a pretty strong group. Lead actress Lindsey Deluce in particular is very fetching — she has one of those kittenish smiles that makes her look like she's biting her lip even when she's not. There are occasional reminders that this isn't the big-budget picture it generally looks like — some of the CGI is a little dodgy, and the music, while often much better than your typical studio score, does sometimes have that "banged out in Cakewalk" sound to it — but the cast is not one of those reminders. Whoever cast the movie did a good job. Wait, that was Kent Tessman too? What else did he do — paint the paintings?

Goddammit, I give up.

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