Friday, November 14, 2008

Fight to the Finish

Fight to the Finish (2007)
Directors: Steve Erdman, Zac Kind, and Daniel Wolfberg
Czech Republic, 9 minutes

My Wednesday class is Fiction Writing. When I read a short story by one of my classmates that does more "telling" than "showing," I feel like I want to shoot myself by the end of the second page. To put it simply, explicit and ham-handed exposition is boring and trite; subtext is beautiful.

Fight to the Finish is all about the subtext. Virtually all of Jan's lines are part of his attempt to remember and celebrate his glory years. He was a boxer, a husband, and an independent human being. He never says any of that explicitly. It comes out naturally in the mise-en-scene, in Jan's mannerisms and eccentricities, and in his monologue. Try it yourself: Start ticking off a few things you know about Jan before he states it, if at all.

He is a former boxer.
He currently lives in an assisted-living facility (or something like an asylum). He is no longer independent.
He is a local.
He has lost someone precious and is having trouble letting go.
He has a pretty darn good memory of that someone.
He has no friends.

Just as in short stories, the amount of "telling" in a movie can be an effective bellwether of how enjoyable the movie is. With some exceptions, as verbal exposition decreases, the movie's quality increases. Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino are two notables who arguably live outside this rule. I would contend that Tarantino is as good as anyone at showing exposition through on-screen action. His dialogue is highly stylized, less about exposition and more about character development. Kevin Smith is closer to the true exception, but his exposition comes out in naturally-delivered dialogue.

The exposition in Fight to the Finish comes out as he walks in large, empty spaces, a clear indication that he is lonely in the world (and logically consistent with his advanced age and residence in an assisted-living facility). It comes out as he reminisces about the good times he had with his late significant other. I'll also point out that the story never stops cold. That would be an inevitable symptom of a failure in natural exposition. The audience begins to zone out as the filmmaker tries to explain something direct to our ears. Film is a visual medium. The audience wants to see the story unfold naturally and contemplate it in context. That can't happen when you've stopped the story cold.

Fight to the Finish never fails that test. It is quiet reflection on film. It forces the audience to understand the subtext.

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