The Big Picture (1989)
Directed by Christopher Guest
Screenplay by Christopher Guest & Michael Varhol & Michael McKean
Rob Reiner once told a story on Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show about going to the premiere of The Princess Bride and seeing Christopher Guest there. In his mind, he thought, ‘that’s nice of him to come and show his support’. Then, after a minute, it dawned on him—he’s in the movie! He goes on to explain that Guest is such a good actor that he completely disappears into his roles—so much so that Rob literally forgot he was even in his movie.
Christopher Guest’s movies also seem to disappear in one’s mind. You don’t really think about them, and then you’re like ‘oh yeah, those!’ Like Guest, they seem to just sort of exist on their own little island or something. I think it’s the improv—more specifically, his unique style of it.
What most people wrongly assume about improv in film is that it’s literally made up on the fly while the camera’s rolling. The technical processes required to make a movie are very detailed and costly, and to allow actors to just make everything up willy-nilly would be a waste of money, as it would often mean out of focus, poorly lit footage, awkward staging, and continuity errors. (Goodfellas has a lot of ad-libs, which is big part of why the movie is littered with continuity errors.) For your actors and shots to look good, things need to be planned, sometimes down to the inch. Marks are made, movements are rehearsed, and actions are worked out before the camera even rolls so that everything can be captured with precision. So for most movies, when ad-libbing and improvisation occurs, it’s at the rehearsal stage, and then incorporated into the planned action. It’s still made up on the fly, but not as literally as you might think.
Christopher Guest throws this all out the window. Eugene Levy once told a story (incidentally from the same program, Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show, really the best interview show of all time) about arriving on set of one of Guest’s movies and being thrown into a scene with almost no direction. When he asked if they’d rehearse, Guest said, ‘no, we’ll just do it’. They just rolled camera and whatever happened was the scene.
There actually are technical ways to make this work. Wide lenses (which have a larger focal length and need less light to be well-exposed) and camera men with experience shooting vérité style can get you usable on-the-fly footage. This is how documentaries are made.
Creating a drama this way is pretty remarkable. I think it’s why I’m not that into the famous Guest movies though. Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration all have their moments, but ultimately don’t really do much for me. Their unwieldy shooting style just seems to organically lend itself to unwieldy narratives. When your stylistic choice is anti-craftsmanship, it’s difficult to be a craftsman. Despite this, Guest is without a doubt an auteur and a craftsman, just not always my cup of tea.
You might notice I’m being unusually light on Guest, since, if you’ve read any of my other pieces, you’ll notice a trend of scathing, sarcastic criticisms, often broad and sweeping, delivered with biting brevity. So why does Guest get a pass from me?
Because The Big Picture is awesome. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t make me like his other movies more or anything. That’s an easy trap to fall into when you like something by an artist—your adoration and familiarity with one of their pieces warns you up to their lesser work, creating a bias and a general openness to being accepting of missteps. Instead, The Big Picture existing just makes it a total heartbreaker that he doesn’t write more scripts. He’s clearly better at it than he is at just letting things happen.
It’s not that Guffman and the like aren’t scripted, i.e., it’s not literally just ‘hey, we got a camera, I’ll call up Ed Begley Jr. and well make something’. They obviously follow an outline—I suspect, a very detailed one. But Guest just isn’t Larry David, who’s absolutely mastered the form with Curb Your Enthusiasm. In fact, they’re basically polar opposites—Sour Grapes shows David’s total ineptitude when it comes to writing and directing a feature movie).
Guest, however, can write three acts, dialogue and all. The Big Picture is a lot of fun. It’s a familiar story—the rise and fall of a young artist, his tragic descent into hubris and his ultimate redemption. It’s a road well paved by the Greeks thousands of years ago and trafficked by a plethora of artists since. But Guest’s take is refreshing, and equal to any of the best cars on the road.
The strength of The Big Picture is its forays into the possibilities of the cinema. Scenes drift with ease into stop-motion dream sequences, noir parody, and comical satirization of Hollywood homogenization. It’s the work of a filmmaker with an exhaustive knowledge of movie history and a wanton desire to languish in it. Peep this exuberant parody of student art films from the movie’s opening sequence:
Underneath the fun of The Big Picture is a very grounded and well-executed story arc, handled with tremendous care. And the entire cast is amazing—Jennifer Jason Leigh especially shines as a kooky art student type. Everyone is well-directed and the dramatic beats really hit home. I’m thinking in particular of the apology scene between Kevin Bacon and Michael McKean. It’s not only a powerful scene that hits all the right marks, riding the line between melodrama and reality, but it also contains one of the most powerful performances in movie history. In this scene, Michael McKean seems so comfortable and so plugged into the drama that you truly forget you’re watching a movie. It’s an emotional scene, and going too far in either ‘direction’ would kill it, but McKean finds beauty and truth in subtlety and does more in a few lines than Brando ever did in a whole career. (But Brando never got to speak such great words.)
At the end of the day, The Big Picture is silly, and knows it is. It’s making fun of movies, and art, and criticizing the studio system too. It uses cartoonish extremes to make the villains clear and the heroes terrified. But beyond that all that is truth. And where other movies fail to create a workable reality under their style, The Big Picture triumphs.
It’s really a shame that so few people have seen this, and that Christopher Guest hasn’t made a movie like it since 1987.
1 out of 1 stars.