Hey gang, I survived the blizzard and I’m back! (Ours was one of the last cars allowed over the George Washington Bridge before they shut it down, then we stayed up until 4am digging out a parking space and removing the 4 feet of snow that blocked our front door). Let’s get back to it...
So we’ve almost reached the new year which will be the one-year anniversary for this blog. I used this year to rewatch a lot of my favorite movies from the past and think about storytelling rules. One thing I haven’t done is watch a lot of new movies or talk about them on the blog, but this week, we’ll break format a little bit.... Most years, I watch a lot of artsy-fartsy independent and foreign films and make a year-end list of movies that nobody’s heard of. This year, since I was trying to train myself to write something I could sell, I watched a lot of Hollywood movies, where I sought to test my newfound ideas about popular storytelling. So let’s end the year by counting down my personal top five Hollywood movies of the year and how they reflect some of the ideas I’ve been tossing around.
#5 Favorite Movie of the Year: True Grit
The Story: A strangely articulate and hardheaded fourteen year old girl comes to town to hire a federal marshall to help her track and kill the man who killed her father. She hires a fat, one-eyed monstrosity named Rooster Cogburn. They come to respect each other over the course of their quest.
Why This One: I saw this one over Christmas and it knocked Toy Story 3 out of the #5 slot. The Coen Brothers, who have just about become the grandest grand old men of American Cinema, indulge themselves in a remake, sticking truer (from what I hear) to the text of Charles Portis’s 1968 novel than the 1969 movie version, which won John Wayne his only Oscar. They more than justify their choice by retelling this simple story beautifully, combining stunning imagery, meaty dialogue, and great performances.
The Rules It Drove Home:
- Let’s start with the very first rule: Tell Stories, Show Character. This story starts late. A lot has already happened by the time we meet the characters. No problem. The story contrives to create scenes where the characters can just tell us what’s happened so far. They tell us the story, but they show us who the characters are.
- In fact, this movie loves to just let its characters talk. That’s because the characters are full of personality, so everything they say is entertaining, whether or not it furthers the plot.
- These are all wounded characters, but the main characters never ask about each other’s baggage. The decisions we see in real time are everything we need to know about them.
- The girl has a wonderful defining moment at the beginning that sets up an expectation and then reverses it: She is told that there are three marshalls she could hire. The first is too soft, the second is too mean, but the third is a perfect middle ground. She hears this, thinks, and then asks “where can I find the second one?” How bad-ass is that? Who isn’t going to instantly fall in love with her?
Haven't seen the film yet, but the novel is a masterpiece of storytelling and American vernacular worthy of Mark Twain. The audio book read by superfan (and talented novelist in her own right) Donna Tartt is quite awesome as well.
I've gotta listen to that! I love Tartt. Come to think of it, there are echoes of this story in "The Little Friend."
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