Monday, February 28, 2011

Storyteller's Rulebook #70: If You Want To Be Lean, You Have To Be Dense

Last week, I talked about how a movie must have a small enough story that it can fit within two hours and still leave enough time for character growth. Obviously, one way to keep your story lean is to strip away extraneous material: start every scene late, end it early, and avoid meandering digressions. But, paradoxically, in order to be lean, you also have to be dense: you have to pack every moment of every scene with as many metaphors as possible. 

Let’s look at one little throw-away scene from Breaking Away that is extremely dense with metaphorical meaning. Dave is a directionless kid in the suburbs of Bloomington, Indiana who resents the IU college kids, and wants to prove he can be better than them by emulating Italian bicycle racers. That’s his false goal. But by the end of the movie, he will realize that he must overcome his resentment and enroll at IU himself. That’s his unsuspected true goal. This one little scene metaphorically encapsulates both goals.
Dave gets a magazine saying that the Italian bicycle team sponsored by Cinzano vermouth is coming to race in Bloomington. He goes out to practice so that he’ll be ready. He bicycles out to the highway, where he pulls up behind a tractor-trailer, which happens to be hauling Cinzano. Dave keeps up even as fast as 50 mph. The shooting and editing switch from bucolic to tense, making it into a real race. But a cop car pulls the trucker over and gives him a ticket. Dave whips around the regretful trucker with a big smile on his face, and passes a sign that says he’s now entering Bloomington.
Every aspect of this little scene is packed with ironic meaning. First, it drives home his false goal: Dave doesn’t tell anyone in this scene that he’s obsessed with Italy, but he doesn’t have to: He’s dressed himself as an Italian racer, he’s cheering himself on using his little bit of self-taught Italian, the director even scores the scene to an Italian symphony... And the race against the Cinzano truck obviously foreshadows Dave’s upcoming race against Team Cinzano.

But the scene doesn’t stop there. It also foreshadows Dave’s hidden true goal. In his mind, he’s in Italy, but he doesn’t even notice that he is actually racing toward the University the whole time, his true destination. He also doesn’t notice that, by projecting his fantasy onto this trucker, he is actually screwing the trucker over, leaving him to pay a ticket for Dave’s stunt. This foreshadows the subplot in which Dave courts a college girl (the “enemy”) by pretending to be an Italian, not realizing how much it will hurt her feelings when his deception is revealed. 

Every year, the Oscars remind us how many artisans it takes to craft every second of film. If those artisans are short-sighted, they will practice their art in a vacuum, suiting their work merely to their own aesthetic sense. But if they really care, they will constantly consult the script to look for ways to magnify the themes of the movie. In this scene, the costume, the score, the location, the art direction, the editing, and the cinematography all act as metaphors that multiply the message—all without a single exchange of dialogue.
Cramming so much meaning into a little throw-away scene takes a huge weight off of the actual dialogue scenes. The more you can show to your audience in non-verbal ways, the less you’ll need to tell them through dialogue, and that leaves you with more space to let your story breathe.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Underrated Movie #108: Real Life

Title: Real Life
Year: 1978
Director: Albert Brooks
Writers: Albert Brooks, Monica Johnson and Harry Shearer
Stars: Albert Brooks, Charles Grodin, Frances Lee McCain

The Story: Brooks plays a megalomaniacal version of himself as a comedian/filmmaker making an unprecedented documentary by moving into the house of a typical American family for a year and recording everything they do (on something called “digital video”). When the family doesn’t turn out to be interesting enough, Brooks begins interfering in their lives more and more, driving everybody insane, especially himself.

How it Came to be Underrated: Brooks was way ahead of his time in terms of his post-modern self-awareness and his comedy of awkwardness, not to mention his satire of reality TV. Still, I don’t know why this isn’t well-known as one of the great ground-breaking comedies of the ‘70s.

Why It’s Great:
  1. Brooks is satirizing the very first reality show “An American Family” which aired on PBS in 1973, profiling the Loud family of Santa Barbara, who were filmed in their home for a year. Over the course of the year, the family broke up, leading to endless debates about whether or not that would have happened if the cameras hadn’t been there. Brooks was actually a fan of the show, but he couldn’t resist wondering what would happened if a traditional Hollywood buffoon was in charge (predicting the future of reality TV). Brooks quickly resorts to tricks like giving the family a big-screen TV to cheer them up so that he can get happier footage (note the cameramen in their helmet-cams, always lurking in the background.)
  2. This is one of the most deadpan comedies ever made. Instead of constant laughter, you just get an increasingly nervous grin on your face for long periods at a time until suddenly the absurdity overwhelms you and start laughing out loud with little provocation. Then you quiet down and the process starts again.
  3. In drama it’s good if characters don’t really listen to each other, but in comedy it’s essential. They can’t hear each other and they can’t hear themselves. Brooks plays a basically decent man who nevertheless can’t open his mouth without puffing himself up in the most disingenuous possible way: “I’m an entertainer but, quite frankly, if I’d studied harder —or been graded more fairly— I would have been a doctor or a scientist.”
  4. I showed the VHS to everybody I could find back in the ‘90s but I’d never seen the DVD. I was very glad I watched it, because it includes the trailer (which has nothing to do with the movie) showing just how far ahead of its time the satire of this movie is. Somehow Brooks had his finger on the pulse of 2011 back in 1978. Watch this, it’s hilarious:

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Brooks’s next movie Modern Romance is just as good and even more forgotten. (And his third and fourth movies have already been covered here.) Another hilarious ‘70s satire that accurately predicted the rise of reality TV was Death Race 2000.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD with the trailer and a short, funny retrospective interview with Brooks from 2000.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Back At The Courtroom...

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Meddler #6: ...And My Fixes For Julie and Julia

As I explained yesterday, Julie’s choice to merely cook all these recipes is never going to be as interesting as the parallel story, in which an actual chef invents and publishes those recipes against real opposition. BUT, the ingredients (pardon me) of a real conflict are still there in Julie’s scenes, waiting to come out.

First, we have to ask ourselves, since Adams experiences no real opposition to her cooking, can we get a story out of opposition to her blogging? Consider the cartoon above. I didn’t have go digging for it: I ran across it in this week’s “New Yorker” while I was writing this very entry. The point is, in this snooty city, blogging is still a very disreputable thing to do! Even in 2011! In 2002, it was considered, by the literati, to be downright pathetic!

In the movie, it is briefly mentioned that Julie’s husband is himself a book editor—these are the gatekeepers with the least respect for self-publishing of any kind. Her friends are print-journalists. It is also briefly mentioned that she told everybody for years that she was writing a novel, but abandoned it. These potential sources of conflict are mentioned, but then dropped, because the movie would rather complain about how whiny all those 9/11 victims were to Julie! Surely there’s something that can be done with this...

…But wait, what about the bizarre ending with the unexplained diss from Julia Child herself? Well, I’ll be honest, my first instinct was just to cut that depressing plot detail out. It’s not like the biopic police are going to arrest you for excising damning information. But, in the spirit of this project, let’s say we have to leave it in—Well, I say it can be done. But if we’re going to leave it in, it can’t just be casually mentioned and then blithely dismissed. And we don’t have to, because in this version: it becomes the whole point of the movie! Watch where I’m going with this…

  1. Before we meet Julia, we meet Julie: She moves to a Queens apartment that she hates. She finds her job helping 9/11 victims fulfilling but depressing. At first she says her new kitchen is too small to cook anything fancy in, but her disappointed husband reminds her how much she used to love to cook Julia Child recipes. She says she can’t do that anymore because she doesn’t have Julia Child’s advantages. Her husband is dubious about that. Julie admits that she doesn't actually know anything about Julia’s life, but still...
  2. So the next day, while at Barnes and Noble she starts reading the beginning of Julia Child’s autobiography in a comfy chair…
  3. Now we see Julia’s dislocated early years in Paris, where she struggled mightily to find herself and earn the right to be a chef...
  4. Julie is too poor to buy the book, but she comes home, takes out Julia’s cookbook and makes something fancy which makes her very happy. She decides to do it every day.
  5. She brags to her friends about her new happiness technique but they are appalled. She’s hiding form the world in the kitchen? In the most exciting city in the world? Did their mothers fight for nothing? Why can’t Julie stand up for herself and make her husband do the cooking? She realizes that they’ll never understand how happy this makes her...
  6. But she’s dying to tell someone about her adventures in cooking, so she secretly starts a blog, hoping to find an online community, but at first she gets no comments…
  7. She goes to an editor party at her husband’s publishing firm, and meekly asks them what they think of blogging. They all tear into the idea viciously: it devalues what editors do and takes money out of real writers’ pockets by giving away unedited pablum for free. Someone needs to tell these people that nobody wants to hear their crap. Julia slips out in horror. Her husband runs out after her...
  8. Her husband tries to cheer her up by buying her the biography she started in the bookstore. She reads further…
  9. We see Child’s snooty treatment at the Cordon Bleu and by Paris society…
  10. …but we return to Julie as she abruptly closes the book. The book is too good! She’ll read it all week and not get any cooking done. She decides that she can only finish it when she’s done with the project, which she dives back into enthusiastically…
  11. Gradually, she builds an online community and fans, which makes her happy, but her husbands eventually admits that he misses hanging out with their old editor friends who they’ve shunned since the party. She says she can’t bear to face them again. He says that maybe they were right—she is withdrawing from the world. He leaves to go to an editor party alone.
  12. At home alone and depressed again, she decides to break her rule and crack open the book again, just for a few chapters…
  13. We see Julia’s social flowering through cooking, her Valentine’s day party, getting her sister married, etc…
  14. Julie and her husband cautiously decide to invite her “get out of the kitchen” friends and his editor friends to an in-their-face Julia Child themed dinner party. They show up ready for a fight, but she wins them all over with great food and good humor.

    Until… the end of dinner, when she says that, when the projects all over, she might want to publish it as a book—who knows? One of the editors visibly blanches at this, but forces a polite smile. Julie insists on hearing what her honest reaction was. The editor politely refuses. Julie insists again, saying she really wants to know. Finally, the editor erupts: “If I hear one more blogger come into my office telling me about how we should publish their blog entries, I will explode! I want to say to them: I know you have ‘fans’! You have ‘fans’ because it’s FREE!” Mortified, Julie meekly thanks her for her honesty, and they all struggle through the rest of dinner.
  15. Now feeling truly isolated, Julie bitterly limits herself to the online community that loves her, worrying her husband even more. He suggests that if this was really all about getting published, she should drop the project and restart her novel. She is tempted, but she says she has to finish, if only so she can finish reading the biography. He asks if it’s really that good and starts reading it himself... After he reads the next section, he insists that she read it too to cheer herself up… She does…
  16. We get the whole story about Julia’s epic struggle to publish her book and all the many disappointments she faced.
  17. Later, Julie comes home one day and her husband has a surprise for her: he found the complete tapes of Julia’s cooking show—he’s a big fan of Julia now too. They watch them together. Now they see the clip of Julia dropping her quiche on the counter and picking it back up, laughing and saying “It can still be fixed—who’s to know? And if it isn’t perfect, always remember: Never apologize! No excuses! No explanations necessary!” Julie practices saying this out loud. Her husband encourages her. They both shout it out the window…
  18. Julia enters the last stretch of the project with her new motto, “Never apologize!” When editors at parties make fun of her for having a blog, she makes fun of their snootiness, and they all have a laugh. At one of these parties, she meets a writer from the Times who wants to profile her. Her husband points out that the Times can be pretty snide in their profiles, but she says she doesn’t care anymore.
  19. In the final days of the project, the profile appears and her answering machine fills up with book offers! She’s going to get published after all! BUT… on the very last day, as Julie prepares for a celebratory dinner party, her new publisher tells her they’ve gotten a cease and desist letter from Julia Child’s lawyers saying that Julie is profiting off her name! Julie is devastated. The husband says that he should have realized this would happen. He tells her it’s time to finally finish reading Julia’s book… …Julie abandons her cooking and reads…
  20. …We see what we didn’t see in the movie: Julia is now famous and everybody wants to put her name on cheap stuff. She decides to never lend out her name to any thing that wasn’t her idea. No exceptions. Her husband applauds her integrity. End of Julia’s story.
  21. But Julie, reading this, is devastated, even though she realizes now why Julia will never understand. Her publisher asks if they should honor the cease and desist letter. They need an answer right away. She panics… Maybe she just wasn’t meant to have a book… But she has guests coming and her food is boiling over… She panics: “We’ll apologize to our guests. And we’ll apologize to Julia herself and maybe then she’ll…” The door rings… An early guest… She throws open the door: “Never apologize!”
  22. Title cards comes up over their happy dinner party, saying that Julia died the next year. Julie regretted that she never got a chance to tell Julia in person how much she admired her… …but she never apologized.

Basically, this is Harold and Maude. (Forty-year-old spoilers here:) “You taught me not to want to commit suicide, but now I realize that you were planning your own suicide this whole time. So does this undo all that you’ve taught me? No! I still believe it even if you never did. I’ve passed the ultimate test of my new philosophy!”

So does all this (and I apologize for the length) add up to a good movie? Not really, but it just has to be good enough to justify flashing back to the wonderful Julia Child stuff. Hopefully, all of the above plot would be quite a bit shorter than the flashbacks themselves, making it Streep and Tucci’s movie, as it always should have been.

The Meddler #5: Some Problems with Julie and Julia...

Usually, when people say that a movie is half-good, they don’t mean it this literally. As every single reviewer of Julie and Julia said in unison, the portions dealing with Julia Child (Meryl Streep) are magically, beautifully, delightfully good. Better than a movie about someone writing a cookbook has any right to be. The other half of the movie, dealing with a blogger named Julie Powell in 2002 (Amy Adams) trying to recreate all of Julia’s recipes in one year, is a complete and total disaster. Unwatchable. But did it have to be so?

To a certain extent, yes. This is possibly an unfilmable subject. Watching someone blog is death (especially if they murmer the words out loud as they do it). Arbitrary deadlines, as I was just saying, are death. Usually, happy marriages are death. Amazingly, this movie makes Child’s happy marriage (to Stanley Tucci) utterly charming and captivating, but they took it too far in trying to make Powell’s marriage measure up. The scenes with Powell’s husband are flat and unconvincing. (Anyone who read the horrifying reviews of Powell’s second memoir knows why.)

But the Streep scenes are so great that I find myself compelled to find a way to rescue the other half of the movie. First, let’s list the problems (NOT a complete list):

  1. The biggest problem: Almost every cut back and forth through time is completely unmotivated. The past has no clear relationship to the present. Case in point: we start with Child moving to Paris, then cut to Powell moving to Queens forty years later. But every cut must answer a question posed by the previous shot. What question of Child’s is answered by Powell’s movie to Brooklyn? None. Child neither knows nor cares about Powell. We start with Child here, making her our POV character, but she has no POV on Powell, making the cut impossible.
  2. Powell hates her job (helping victims of 9/11!), hates her friends for being richer and busier than her, and only loves to cook. When a friend starts a blog, she starts one too out of spite. Not sympathetic, folks.
  3. She instantly knows what the blog should be and what it should mean. She has already read Child’s biography, already knows everything about Child, and instantly shows her husband tapes of Child explaining her philosophy. We in the audience are about to embark on a journey to get to know Child, but for Powell that journey is already over, so she can’t provide a POV of Child either. This may be the way it actually happened, but it’s death on screen.
  4. Instead of watching Powell get to know Child, we get scene after scene that tries to wring serious conflict from the physical difficulties of cooking. These are obstacles, not conflicts. Good for a montage, but not the entire second act. Especially since we know there will be no consequences for missing her arbitrary deadline.
  5. For Powell, the cooking is hard, but the blogging is always totally fulfilling and positive. But while Child’s journey is to become a famous chef—Powell’s journey, such as it is, is to become a famous blogger, so it’s the blogging that should be hard. But how can blogging be hard?? Come back tomorrow…
  6. But before we get to that, the other biggest problem is the totally bizarre ending. Just before the end, Powell sells the book rights for big money, but, gasp, finds out that Child (who turns out to still be alive) hates the blog. Why? THE MOVIE DOESN’T SAY. (I had to go on the internet to find out that that Child had fought for years to keep people from selling merchandise with her name on it and had adopted a policy of never lending her name to any product, so she didn’t like to see her name used to promote someone else’s book, which is understandable enough.) The movie makes an unexplained reference to this devastating fact, shows that Powell is devastated, but then abruptly cuts off discussion by having Powell declare “There’s something wrong with her! I prefer the Julia that lives in my head!” So she finishes the project, has a triumphant dinner party, then goes to visit a replica of Child’s kitchen where she pretends to converse with Child’s picture.

    The end. It’s painfully sad to watch. If this were a Bergman-eque tragedy it would be one thing, but we’re supposed to stand up and cheer! Mind-boggling.

Okay, okay, I’ve told you what you already know. Could anyone re-inflate this fallen soufflĂ©? Tomorrow, I will try…

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Underrated Movies: Special Guest Picks #14

Hey everybody, this week it’s another two-timer (there’s gotta be a better way of saying that): Luke O’Brien. Luke actually withdrew an earlier version of this because he decided that one of his movies wasn’t underrated enough. Nobody could say that about his final list. Some of Luke’s fellow Special Guests run a podcast called The Flophouse and this is the first time we’ve had a movie that got razzed there before it got praised here. Can you spot it? Bravo to Luke for sticking his neck out for some truly unappreciated movies. Take it away, Luke-O…

Last time I talked about movies people may have missed because of a more prominent film released by the same director or at the same time. Today, I want to talk about movies that get in their own way. Sometimes the premise is the problem. Without seeing a movie, there is no way you can imagine that what was described to you could be worth two hours of your life. Even when your friend who loves a good movie tells you what it’s about, you can’t bear to sit down and watch it. Here are a few movies actual people I know have enjoyed despite their initial reaction when they heard the movie’s two second elevator pitch:

1) Unleashed (aka Danny the Dog) (seen above)

Pitch: A Glasgow gangster defends his turf with the aid of Danny, a young man he raised as his attack dog. When an accident leads Danny away from his master and into the care of a blind piano tuner who helps reconnect with his humanity, a reckoning with his “master” is due.

There is nothing right with the premise of this film. It sounds not only like a purposeless action movie, it sounds like a really dumb purposeless action movie. But instead of shying away from the absurdity, Luc Besson embraces it. He populates his Scotland with characters that are so outrageously drawn, they almost become allegorical figures for the best and worst of humanity.

Bob Hoskins’s scenery chewing loan shark, who barks every line with terrorizing comedy, sets the tone for everyone else by giving them a villain to live up to. Jet Li, in the only acting performance of his I find noteworthy, plays Danny with a convincing child-like fear and - when unleashed - bestial anger. When Morgan Freeman shows up as the sage-like piano tuner living with his saintly daughter-in-law, Kerry Condon, you can’t really think twice about if they seem “real.” Every actor completely believes their own character’s strangeness, playing off of one another as if all of this was natural instead of trying to keep us tied to plausibility.

And, of course, part of the joy in this movie comes from the gorgeously engrossing action sequences. Yuen Woo Ping creates ferociously acrobatic fight scenes that Besson films from a dizzying variety of angles and perspectives. All of the action is set to a wildly underrated, pulse-pounding score by Massive Attack. This is the rare movie that passed my most critical test: By the time the opening of the film was done, I hadn’t even touched my popcorn.

2) Io non ho paura (I’m Not Scared)

Pitch: Ten-year-old Michele discovers a boy close to his age, Filippo, chained up in a hole dug into a reclusive part of the fields near his home and grows curious about why the boy is there.

“Chained up boy” ends most of my pleas for people to watch this film. It’s difficult to ever recommend a movie where bad things happen to kids. Even as a single element of a movie, too many people I know are ruined by those moments.

But these rare movies come along where there is no other way that a story can be told. Gabriele Salvatores creates a believable Southern Italy from the 1970s, when the country was rampant with crime. He fills the screen not only with the gorgeous countryside, but also with kids running around, not doing much more than being kids. When Michele discovers Filippo, he reacts like many kids would react – with disbelief and morbid curiosity. (It should also be noted how rare this is, since American child actors - in general - are horrible. They can ruin a scene twice as fast as bad dialog. And our first impulse should rightly be to avoid any movie that uses them extensively.)

If he was an adult we would never accept the blithe way everyone reacts when Michele begins – cautiously – to tell people what he’s discovered, but we can believe a child would be bullied into silence and dismissed. Michele’s inability to understand why this has happened to Filippo, and why no one is helping him, drives the movie forward. As he begins to unravel why Filippo is there and who is keeping him locked up, he begins to understand his family and community for the first time.

3) Mr. Brooks

Pitch: Kevin Costner plays a relapsing serial killer who gets blackmailed by a peeping tom (Dane Cook) into taking him along on his next murder; Demi Moore plays the detective who is hot on their trail.

Sometimes the cast alone is a reason you know you want to stay away, and on paper this cast couldn’t look any worse. The stars of Good Luck Chuck, Passion of the Mind, and The Postman? Not an auspicious start. This movie reeks of the sad opportunism that Hollywood uses to draw ticket sales to a terrible movie by overloading it with big name stars. But this movie is better than that. It’s a great reflection on identity, set in a world of pulpy deliciousness. I’ve seen it several times, and I always have a feeling I can only describe as the opposite of that sucker punch I felt when I walked out of Pacino and Deniro’s spectacularly bad Righteous Kill.

The movie opens with disembodied voices – an aww-shucks Iowan intonation breathily saying the serenity prayer while a growling voice interrupts with objections. We meet the two characters Mr. Brooks is split into: Costner’s Earl, the cautious family man who is using a 12 step program to try to control his darker impulses, and Marshall, giddily played by William Hurt, who acts as the devil on his shoulder, encouraging him to do very bad things.

This gives us a clear path for a modern interpretation of Jekyll and Hyde, but one where Dr. Jekyll is considerably less innocent and Hyde a lot more entertaining. There is no transition into Mr. Brooks’s head – Marshall and Earl have conversations in the middle of a scene with some other character who notices nothing – and the chemistry between Costner and Hurt makes these scenes come alive.

There are too many plot threads (this is still a pulpy thriller full of big improbable jumps) but they all reflect these struggles with our darker selves: Cook’s desperate desire to get in touch with something more Hyde-like piteously taken in by Brooks, Moore’s cop whose contentious divorce and obsession with several killers constantly threatens her Jekyllian nature, and finally Brooks’s daughter, an excellent Danielle Pannabaker, who comes home early from school and becomes the crux of many of Brooks’s fears about how his nature may have affected his family.

4) Apres Vous

Pitch: A French farce that follows a pathologically helpful waiter who interrupts a man who is trying to hang himself, and then goes to outrageous extremes to help the man get his life back on track.

“It’s a French farce about…” is about as far as this pitch gets. Despite the fact that a huge number of our biggest box office comedies are watered down versions of French originals (including the recent Dinner for Schmucks which is a sad toothless version of Le Diner de Cons), there’s still a pretty strong bias against comedies you have to read, especially by people whose exposure to French comedy is the old saw that all of France thinks Jerry Lewis is still funny. Even my film-loving friends, who would rave about Tati, grumble about how too many of their movies are like Les Bronzes, or one of the other garishly over-the-top comedies. But this movie is more than where it is from. So I need to be clear here: I’m telling you about this movie so you can see it and enjoy it before it’s remade with Paul Rudd and Jason Segel.

This story stands out to me for how it combines the elements of farce, so popular in their better comedies, with a more benevolent view of humanity. After saving his new friend from hanging, our waiter feels responsible for him. He discovers that the inconsolable man recently broke up with his girlfriend and has no interest in going on without his love. Undaunted by the man’s protestations (and further attempts to take his own life), the waiter tries to help the man repair his life and reconcile with his ex.

All of this, of course, has to be done before the suicidal mope costs him his job and his girlfriend. Every good turn is met with resistance and ridiculous failure. That’s normal for a farce. The challenge is getting us to still care about the guys we know are struggling to succeed. Daniel Auteuil loves the characters, and has specialized in creating people you would actively root against (his cheating executive in Le Doublure) or pity (his boorish accountant in Le Placard). But it’s unusual for a story to be built on someone whose most significant personality flaw is excessive kindness. And when the waiter begins to consider betraying his new friend when he sees how beautiful his ex is, we get an earned sense of conflict that makes the story more compelling than the ridiculous set-up normally would.

5) Lars and the Real Girl

Pitch: A painfully shy man’s “relationship” with a sex doll that he treats as a real person helps him stop isolating himself from the rest of the world.

This sounds like a soft core porn treatment of those classic 80s movies where inanimate objects come to life. (Zalman King’s Mannequin, maybe?) I don’t want to see that movie either. The actual movie is the opposite of what it sounds like. It’s devoid of sex, grounded, and even goes out of its way to show Lars’s discomfort with even being touched.

I found the movie light on the comedy that the goofy cover communicates. The movie is successful in part because Ryan Gosling does such a phenomenal job bringing Lars to life as someone with genuinely crippling shyness. But a real Lars is a sad portrait of someone with genuinely crippling shyness. It’s the portrait of someone who, as he begins to be openly emotional with those around him, is totally unprepared for how difficult feeling that much can be.

And while the emotionally stunted hermit is centerpiece, the movie, in the end, is hardly about him or his imagined paraplegic missionary girlfriend Bianca – although they are the catalysts for everything the follows. The film unfolds around how his brother and pregnant sister-in-law react to this news, how that affects how others treat Lars. And the story grows to encompass the entire community around them – participating in, or resisting, Lars’s increasingly elaborate delusion. The film is, as many great stories are, about how we treat people. And not much is more important than that.

Luke O'Brien works for a privately held movie database. His day job just supports his avocation: answering people's questions about what to put next in their Netflix queue. If you need help pairing a bad movie with a good bourbon, he's happy to help.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Storyteller's Rulebook #69: A Good Movie Has An Hour of Plot

I have a weakness for overly-complex plots. When I first dream up a story, I worry about the wrong things: “Is that it?” “Are there enough twists?” “Is there enough story?” “Does it feel big enough?” “Does it feel like a movie?” I soothe these doubts by piling on twists, escalations and reversals until it “feels like a movie.” After all, only in a movie would all this crazy stuff happen to one person!

At first, my elephantine plots combined with my flabby scene-work to create first drafts that were upwards of 200 pages. Even a beginner knows they’ve done something wrong when that happens. (One page, properly formatted, is supposed to equal one minute of screen time, so you don’t want to go over 120, which is a two-hour movie.) Soon I figured out how to make my scenes as lean as possible and strip away enough subplots so that my screenplays were clocking in just under the line at 119 pages.

But I gradually realized that these 119-page-wonders were still not working. A lot was happening to my heroes, but they had little time to think about it or react to it. There certainly wasn’t any time to pre-establish what their expectations were before a scene happened. They were going on massive external journeys and teensy-weensy internal journeys. My first instinct was to add some “character scenes”, but I was already out of room. Even if I shaved off another plot twist in order to give them some rumination downtime, it was too little, too late to create a fully realized character.

Here’s the problem: when I was asking, “Does it feel like a movie?”, I though the key word was “movie” but the key word was actually “feel”. If it doesn’t feel like a movie, don’t amplify the movie-ness of it all, amplify the feeling. This is the difference between “complicated” and “complex”. All the complications in the world don’t add complexity, which is what makes a work great.

I suddenly realized something: my characters spent all their time talking about the plot, explaining it to themselves and explaining it to the audience. This is inevitable when the plot is too complicated. But a good plot must be simple enough that both the characters and the audience understand it just by looking at it. If there’s a problem (emotional or physical or both) they should see the problem, not figure out what it is with long explanations.

Once I realized that my characters needed to have much bigger personalities, and they needed to talk about something other than the plot at least once in every scene, I realized that my plots needed to be massively-downsized. I had been so proud of myself for shrinking my three-hour plots down to two hours, but now they needed to get even leaner: I realized that a good two-hour movie has a one-hour plot.

Carson over at ScriptShadow recently did excellent breakdowns of the first and second Die Hard movies, to determine why one worked and the other didn’t. The first one, for all its little twists, is a relatively simple, self-explanatory story: gunmen have taken over a bank-building and hold everybody hostage long enough to drill into the vault. The big problem for the hero isn’t about figuring out what’s going on, it’s dealing with his own personal baggage while he’s solving the problem, since the villains attacked just as he was dealing with a massive emotional crisis.

In Die Hard 2, John has no personal baggage, no emotional crisis, and never discusses anything but the plot. The extra room this creates in the script is filled by a far more complicated, non-self-explanatory plot. In the first movie, you can tell what the bad guys want to do just by looking at them. In the second, both sides have to keep explaining every step of the process. Die Hard has a one-hour plot, stretched to two hours by John’s emotional crisis. Die Hard 2 has a two-hour plot, which leaves us exhausted but not exhilarated.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Underrated Movie #107: Killer's Kiss

Title: Killer’s Kiss
Year: 1955
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writer: Stanley Kubrick
Stars: Frank Silvera, Jamie Smith, Irene Kane, Jerry Jerret

The Story: In a nightmarishly corrupt version of Manhattan, a down-on-his-luck boxer and a dime-a-dance girl decide that it’s finally time to flee the big bad city, but her boss doesn’t intend to let her go.

How it Came to be Underrated: Independent auteurs were strictly verboten in America’s movies theaters in 1955. Even after Kubrick became famous, his fans rarely delved this deeply into his back catalogue to discover this self-financed one-man-band gem. But considering that this was the last movie of his that wasn’t an adaptation, it’s one of the purest distillations of his themes, and since he shot it himself, it’s shockingly beautiful and grotesque.

Why It’s Great:

  1. I love the leads of this movie. Silvera really moves like a beefy boxer, Kane really looks like a skinny dancer, and they have a genuine awkwardness that makes their performances feel very unrehearsed and vulnerable. This is what you want from independent movies: a feeling that the veil of “Hollywood” glamour has been lifted.
  2. Film buffs always gasp with delight the first time they see this because they get to finally identify the source of many of the shots of the opening montage that Turner Classic Movies airs before its daytime movies. Kubrick got his start as a street photographer, and then briefly a documentarian, so he got a great eye for picturesque New York grittiness.
  3. Kubrick’s favorite theme was dehumanization, and we get that in spades here. Both characters try to find a way to sell their bodies without selling their souls, and the whole thing ends up in a life-or-death fight in a mannequin factory, just to drive the point home.
  4. I remember being a single young man in the city and imagining that I was going to date some single young women who might live in the next apartment over. Has that ever worked for anyone? Between this and Monsieur Hire, it seems like a pretty dangerous way to meet a girl.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: If I had to guess, I’d say that Kubrick’s two biggest noir influences, both in terms of minimalist style and existential subject matter, were Robert Wise’s The Set-Up and Jules Dassin’s Night and the City. (I would also have suspected Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Big Combo, but it came out the same year.)

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD and there’s a particularly beautiful print on Watch Instantly.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Hoax!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

I'm Beat

Well, I was going to have some concluding thoughts, but I realized that it had all already been said. Furthermore, I realized that after three weeks of double-sized posts, I’m beat. I think Mrs. Peeler has stolen my vitamins again. So I’m calling it an early week. I’ll see you guys next week for our regularly scheduled content.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

How to Create a Compelling Character, Step 11: Establish Their Deadline.

Throughout this project, I’ve cited Star Wars over and over as the ultimate example of how to do everything right. But even there, after the movie was shot and edited, they found that people just didn’t care enough about the ending. You see, in the first cut, our heroes stole the specs of the Death Star, took them back to the rebel alliance, realized that the station had a fatal flaw, and then flew back to launch a surprise ambush against it.

That’s good, right? Heroes should be proactive, right? Nope. It turns out that audiences don’t want their heroes to be too proactive. As G. W. Bush learned to his dismay, it’s inherently unsympathetic to fight a battle “at a time of our choosing.” It’s far more sympathetic if your heroes’ backs are up against the wall. George Lucas belatedly realized that, as brilliantly as he had executed Steps 1-10, he had lost his audience by forgetting Step 11: Set a Deadline.

But then Lucas had a flash of genius: He could, without calling the whole cast back, simply shoot a few additional minutes of footage (and change the read-outs on the rebel computer screens), to add a deadline retroactively. What if, instead of the Millennium Falcon getting away in a lucky break, the empire let them get away, and discovered the rebel base by tracking them? What if the Death Star was ambushing them, and the rebels had one last chance to stop them before their moon was blown up? Problem solved.
But deadlines are tricky. Some stories simply don’t lend themselves to deadlines, and you can feel the conniptions that the writers subject themselves to artificially impose one. You could always feel this tension on the TV show “Without a Trace”. The squad kept announcing, “If a missing person isn’t found in the first forty-eight hours, they aren’t ever likely to be found!” So they always rushed to meet this arbitrary 48-hour deadline. But if they fail to meet it, what happens? Well, they either keep searching or they all get bored and move on. The deadline was entirely artificial.

When heroes impose arbitrary deadlines on themselves, it’s less than satisfying. Instead, there are various tricks to create the sense of a deadline, even if the hero doesn’t talk about it—even if the hero doesn’t know about it. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that two of my favorite movies are Charley Varrick and Never Cry Wolf. Both heroes face open-ended problems. Charley is on the run from the mob, and probably will be his whole life. Tyler in Never Cry Wolf has devoted his whole life to the study of Canadian wolves. These heroes don’t see a deadline on the horizon, but they don’t have to. It’s only important that the audience perceive a deadline...
Near the beginning of Charley Varrick, the mob realizes that Charley is trying to get away and one of them dramatically announces, “He’ll never make it out of Arizona alive!” We subconsciously note that “getting out of Arizona alive“ has now become the official measure of success, even if Charley keeps running for years after that. Likewise, near the beginning of Never Cry Wolf, we see one of the grizzled Yukon mountain men give Tyler the once-over and declare, there’s no way he’ll survive for a whole winter!” Once again, we instantly accept that as the benchmark of success.

McKee (him again!) points out that you can set up your intro in such a way that you are clearly withholding a certain image. Two people who are looking for each other but haven’t laid eyes on each other yet, or someone who swears, “I will return!” He calls this the “obligatory scene”. If the audience sense that you intentionally withholding something that they want to see, then they will know that that scenes is coming and will mark the end of the movie. This is a form of abstract deadline that can give shape to a story that might otherwise have none. The hero of Paris, Texas is aimless, but we know that he must eventually confront his ex-wife. Our anticipation of that obligatory scene keeps us hooked.
This can also to establish a secondary deadline, outside of the hero’s knowledge. Dr. Crowe in The Sixth Sense seems to have solved all of his problems, but the cinematographic foreshadowing tells us otherwise: we know that the movie cannot end until he deals with the mysterious red doorknob. The more ways you can find to get your audience to anticipate the ending, the easier it will be to compel them forward through the story. 

So, congratulations! You've given birth to a healthy compelling character! Now go and sin no more!

Monday, February 14, 2011

How to Create a Compelling Character, Step 10: Make Them Resourceful

As I mentioned yesterday, you can’t tell the audience who the hero is, you have to show them. The audience chooses the hero, not the other way around. The audience will choose the character who is doing the most to get what they want. But just because they’ve chosen them doesn’t mean that they trust them yet. You can do everything else right, but still lose the audience if you don’t give them what they crave: a moment where your hero does some little something clever thing that makes them say “Heh-heh, that’s my man!” 

“Now wait,” you’re thinking, “Now you’re gone too far. Not every hero has to be James Bond. Maybe my hero isn’t clever. Maybe he’s not even a hero. Maybe he’s just a fool. Can’t I make a movie about a fool?” The answer is yes, of course you can. But they have to be a resourceful fool. As my brother likes to point out: “It’s hard to make things foolproof, because fools can be so clever.” If you think about this, it’s absolutely true. Nothing in this world is foolproof, because resourceful fools always figure out some way to screw it up. That’s the kind of fool you want to write about.

As filmmakers go, you don’t get more artsy than the Dardenne Brothers of Belgium, who make beautiful-observed but grueling portraits of bottom-dwellers who somehow manage to spiral even further down. No one thinks of these characters as “clever” or “heroes”, but in fact they are both, in the way that I use those terms. Bruno in The Child is an aimless junkie who discovers that an ex-girlfriend has just had his baby, so he immediately goes and sells the child on the black market in order to get money for drugs. Later, he is truly shocked to see how upset she is and he tries to get the baby back.

At one point in this process, Bruno is forced to wait in a back alley before the person inside will speak with him. There’s just one problem: he can never wait around for anything. He can’t sit still for a second—That’s his whole problem. But he doesn’t whine about this problem, he finds clever ways to solve it. When he is told he must wait five minutes, we instantly sense that this is like a prison sentence to him. We share his anxiety as he looks around desperately for something to do. Then he spots it: a mud puddle by a white wall. He goes over, soaks his boots in mud, then leaps up against the wall repeatedly, putting black boot-prints all over the wall. This happily occupies him until they come to get him. Problem solved. Fools can be so clever. 

Cleverness has no direct relationship to competence. William Goldman, in his book “Adventures in the Screen Trade”, writes about how nobody was bonding with the titular hero in his movie Harper, so he added a brief scene in the beginning where Harper gets up in the morning, starts to make coffee, realizes that he’s out of filters, fishes yesterday’s filthy filter out of the garbage, brushes it off and re-uses it. Suddenly, the audience was ready to go anywhere with this guy. He may not be very competent, but at least he’s resourceful. We can trust him to solve the murder case or do whatever he sets his mind to. 

Of course, if you really want us to cheer on your hero, it’s great to give them something clever and heroic to do right away. My biggest problem with Blake Snyder’s excellent book about likable heroes, “Save the Cat”, is that he gives so few actual examples of “Save the Cat” moments. But one that he does give is a doozie: Al Pacino begins Sea of Love by inviting everyone with outstanding NYPD warrants to a free “Meet the Yankees” day at the stadium. As they arrive, cops arrest them all. This guy is clever! Even better, Pacino notices that one sad-sack fugitive has brought his eager young kid, so Pacino discretely flashes his badge and warns them away. Now we really love this guy, despite the fact that he spends the rest of the movie screwing the suspect.
Hold yourself to a high standard: Have your hero do five clever things in the first ten pages, based on whatever their goals are, right or wrong, smart or dumb. Audiences will love you for it.
So now we’ve almost done, but before we get to the end of the line we need to establish one more thing: the end of the line. Return tomorrow for the exciting conclusion.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

How to Create a Compelling Character, Step 8: Give Them a False Goal and a True Goal

All characters, as you might have heard before, need a goal. Not a goal shared by everybody around them (“win the war”, “arrest bad guys”), but something with special meaning to them. If your character doesn’t want something badly, the audience gets bored with them very quickly.

Unless you’re breaking a lot of rules, then your story is about a person’s attempt to solve a problem. As soon as the story starts, the audience starts searching for who the hero is going to be. The way they have learned to identify the hero is by singling out the character who is trying the hardest to solve a problem. Many storytellers falsely think that if they simply thrust a passive character in the audience’s face for long enough, then the audience will be forced to identify with that character, but this isn’t true. Instead, audience members will crane their necks and look over that character’s shoulder, trying to identify someone, anyone, who is dedicated to solving a problem.
But one distinction that I’ve only learned to make recently is between those stories in which the heroes’ goals never change, and those in which heroes learn that their original goals were false. Though either kind of story can work, giving your character a false goal before they discover a real goal is a good way to make them more compelling.
Here are three potential reasons why your hero may go from a false goal to a real goal, listed from most extreme to least extreme:

Total Reversal of Values:

Juno goes off searching for a “cool” parent to entrust her kid to, but then realizes in the end that she wants just the opposite. Dave in Breaking Away starts off trying to defeat the college kids, but then realizes that he really wants to join them. Peter Parker in Spider-Man wants to use his powers to make his own life better, until his callousness gets his uncle killed. Jake Sully in Avatar goes from wanting to rejoin the marines to killing them en masse.

These characters grow, and we’re glad for it. Although we agreed with their original goal in the beginning, by the end, we go on the same journey as they do, and we’re very happy that they no longer want to do what we originally wanted them to do. A total reversal of values is hard to pull off, but when it’s done right this is one of the best ways to get your audience to truly love your hero, since they’ve shared the character’s transformation.

Micro-Goal to Macro-Goal:
This is a simpler form of false goal. In Star Wars, Luke goes from wanting to fix his runaway droid to wanting to blow up the Death Star. John McClane in Die Hard spends the first half of the movie just trying to call the cops before he realizes that he’ll have take on a terrorist cell single-handedly. These false goals make character motivations far more believable. If the heroes just woke up one day and decided to do the daunting tasks they take on, it would be hard to swallow. It’s far more compelling to watch them get sucked into greatness against their better judgment.

Wrong Solution to Right Solution:
In 2006, the Lupus Foundation gave the TV show “House” an award for all it had done to spread awareness of the disease. What was weird about this was that Dr. House had never correctly identified a case of Lupus on the show at the time. Instead, almost every week, House’s team had falsely identified the patient’s mysterious ailment as Lupus before realizing that they were wrong and the patient had a far-more exotic disease. Lupus is a little-understood catch-all diagnosis that can explain all sorts of symptoms that don’t normally fit together, so for House’s team, it was a tempting but false way to think of the puzzle in front of them. But it gives them tests to run, and those tests unexpectedly led them to the real diagnosis that they had not suspected before. Likewise, on the show “Supernatural”, they always hope to solve hauntings by finding the ghost’s grave and salting the bones. But that never actually works. It’s just their fallback false goal that leads them to uncover the real mystery.

Why use the “wrong solution” approach? It gives heroes a reason to get moving, so that then they can learn and grow on the job. While it may seem cooler to have the hero know what to do right away, or at least have them withhold judgment until they have all the facts, you will often find the audience actually likes them better if you first send them charging off in the wrong direction.
Aimiable goof Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything wants to be a kickboxing champion until he unexpectedly gets a date with the girl of his dreams and changes all of his goals. Even though his kickboxing spiel sounds very loser-ish, it’s actually far more appealing than if he simply said, “Eh, I don’t know what I want to do yet.” We like him because he wants something, even if we don’t like what he wants.

Still, there are lots of heroes without any false goals. They correctly perceive the problem right away. Clarice in Silence of the Lambs learns over the course of the story that she must change her methods, but not her goals. Likewise Brody in Jaws, Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, and Popeye in The French Connection. Such stories can work, but they are the exception, not the rule.
Now that we’ve established that their goals need to change, let’s talk about the corollary to that: how does their philosophy change? That’s next...