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Changing Lanes Posted on 04/20/2002.

Two men are travelling on a train. One sees that the other has a big box with him.
"What's that in the box?" he asks.
"Oh. That's a MacGuffin," the other replies.
"What's a MacGuffin?"
"It's a device for trapping lions in the Scottish highlands."
"But there are no lions in the Scottish highlands!"
"Oh! Well, then, that's no MacGuffin!"

Film nerds are well-acquainted with The MacGuffin, that, well, *thing* that's got all the characters in a fury, but which has nothing to do with the audience's connection with the story. Hitchcock was the primary exploiter of the device, be it the uranium in the wine bottles in Notorious, the secret plans locked in Mr. Memory's head in The 39 Steps, or most delightfully ethereally, the melody from The Lady Vanishes.

In the recently released Changing Lanes, the MacGuffin is a bright red folder that lawyer Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck) needs to support a case he's defending. He inadvertently left it in the hands of Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson) after a traffic altercation on the FDR. The movie, obviously, isn't about the red folder; it's actually an existential drama about two men who have found themselves trapped in , a series of situations of their own doing, unable to acquire the perspective necessary to understand the context in which their actions take place.

If this seems a bit... muddied for a Hollywood film, it is. There are few easy distinctions made. Gavin and Doyle are both reprehensible yet honorable; well-intentioned and mean-spirited. My guess is that credit for making this work goes to Michael Tolkin, who co-wrote the screenplay. Tolkin's pedigree includes The Player and Deep Cover, the latter being among my favorite films of the early 90s exactly for it's murkiness and unwillingness to make it easy on the audience. (I wonder if it holds up.)

Changing Lanes is not a great film, mind you--I'd rate it as "pretty good", probably something like a 6 or a 7 out of 10. But it does give a lot of food for thought, which I appreciated. Particularly its commentary on our overly time-sensitive society. One little accident, that causes these two characters to be delayed by 20 minutes, sets both so off-track that they take the whole movie to recover. What does it mean that, in our world, being "20 minutes late" can potentially alter your life irrevocably?

The movie also seems to be an indictment of driving in Manhattan (who drives in Manhattan, anyway?). If these good folks had simply taken the subway, none of this would have ever happened.

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Previous entry: "Painting with Light."
Next entry: "What's your urban tribe?"


Let's see if I understand... Would another MacGuffin be the shiny contents of Ving Rhames' briefcase that John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson retrieve in Pulp Fiction?
Posted by Ken @ 04/23/2002 10:11 AM PST [link to this comment]

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