Tuesday, May 31, 2011

How to Build a Scene, Part 5: Tricks and Traps

Until the 19th century, most armies would just march right at each other, but Napoleon perfected the “flanking maneuver”, in which one army would sweep around and attack the other from the side. This became every subsequent general’s preferred method of attack, even though it quickly turned comical. In the American Civil War, both sides were obsessed with Napoleon and determined to outflank each other every time, so the result was thousands of armed men endlessly circling around each other in the woods, only fighting when one army accidentally backed into the other.

Here’s what this has to do with scene construction: Once you know what your characters want and what obstacles are in their way, it’s time to figure out what strategy they will use to get it. In every scene, one or more of the scene partners is pursuing an objective and encountering an obstacle. If that obstacle is another character, then the solution will probably involve either seduction, friendship, or belligerence (and sometimes all three). Each of these three methods requires strategy…

Of course, your characters can walk right up to one another, state their case plainly, reasonably discuss every possible objection, come to a resolution, and then move on. But they won’t seem like human beings. We human beings won’t even admit to ourselves that we want what we want, much less to each other. As a result, we hide our true objectives in every possible way. Real life conversations, even with people we love –especially with people we love—are full of little verbal tricks and traps.

In any negotiation, those who lay out their positions first always lose, because it allows their opponents to position accordingly and outflank them (see: our president). This is true whether you want a kiss or a confession or a treaty. This is why clever people play their cards close to the vest and lead their verbal sparring partners on until they can trap them with their own words.

Don’t assume that only unsympathetic or devious characters do this. Anyone who is clever and persuasive knows that they must pepper their conversation with tricks and traps. Watch this scene from Twelve Angry Men. As a lone holdout juror in a murder trial, Henry Fonda pretty much plays the ultimate living embodiment of human decency. He’s one of the most humble and noble heroes in the history of movies. And he does it all with tricks and traps... 
Fonda sits there right up until the very end of this scene hiding a big secret that’s burning a hole in his pocket: the knife he has found on the street.But he doesn’t walk into the room and present his exculpatory evidence right away.No, he waits and lays traps for his eleven opponents.He insists that they speak first, laying out their cases for conviction, knowing that ultimately they will have no choice but to brag about the supposed uniqueness of the murder weapon.He’s hoping that they’ll literally throw the knife in his face, so that he can dramatically throw the identical knife he found right back in their faces.At the end of this scene, his patience pays off.

Fonda is not some righteous blunderer who stumbles upon the truth. He’s a steely but wily crusader who verbally traps and defeats his opponents one by one. That what makes him heroic. All compelling characters, whether heroes or villains, serve their own cause best by laying verbal traps, outflanking their opponents at every turn. Those who get fed up with maneuvering and simply plow straight ahead (as if they were at Pickett’s charge) lose their battles and lose our sympathy.
(BONUS: This video has the best YouTube comment ever: Well said, TheSuperSnoopyLover. Well said.)

Monday, May 30, 2011

How to Build a Scene, Part 4: Push and Pull and Give and Take

Some say that screenplays can’t have any scenes over two pages (two minutes onscreen). That’s a little extreme, but it’s true that you can’t have more than two pages of conversation without any written directions breaking up the dialogue. If the scene goes longer (or even if it doesn’t), you must seek opportunities to “re-block” it, as they say in the theater... Force the characters to their feet, give them a lot of stuff to do. Break off two people from the group for a brief private conversation, then re-intergrate them. Even at a table you can create mini-scenes for two characters where the others seem to fade away...

You need to know the same stuff that they teach directors and actors: characters need a goal in each scene and the other characters need to be the obstacles in their way, in every sense of the word. You already know that scenes need “push and pull” and “give and take”, so turn these metaphors literal.

Let them actually shove or yank on each other. Let them actually give each other significant objects or take them away.

I generally have a “one touch” rule: two characters should touch each other once and only once in each scene, whether it’s a punch or a shove or a slap or a persuasive-hand-on-the-shoulder or a caress or a clinch. This is payoff for both the literal and figurative chasing that’s been going on throughout the scene. Directors will have to figure out this stuff anyway, but the writer, too, can dictate how far apart the characters are at all times, and use that to convey a lot. When they touch, that’s the climax: one character has reached the other: can they seal the deal? Whether or not, it’s time to move on.
Let’s look at ten minutes of Hitchcock’s most underrated masterpiece, Shadow of a Doubt. Written by Thornton Wilder, it starts out with a heartfelt Americana setting similar to Wilder’s play “Our Town”, then quickly sours. A teen girl named Charlie is convinced that their lives will be so much livelier when her wandering namesake Uncle Charlie arrives, but she gradually realizes that he is the infamous “Merry Widow Killer,” now on the lam.

From minute 20 to minute 30 in is essentially one long scene. It begins in the middle of Uncle Charlie’s welcome dinner, as he gives them each presents and almost gives himself away by giving his niece a ring stolen from one of his victims. The scene continues as the father’s friend visits and pulls him outside to discuss their favorite crime stories, but we cut back inside as Uncle Charlie finds an incriminating article in the paper, and concocts an elaborate ruse as an excuse to tear it out and discard it.

Though this is ten minutes in the same location, it re-blocks continuously: Uncle Charlie crosses the table to give the parents their gifts, then the two Charlies pull off into the kitchen for their exchange. They regroup at the table, but Uncle Charlie decides to cut the scene short when a discussion of merry widows comes up, so he tips over his glass and gets them all up on their feet again, then the whole family splits up into smaller groups for the remainder.

The scene’s got tons of give and take, of course, because of all the gift-giving. Hitchcock understood the power of objects to reveal character. Uncle Charlie is using these gifts to dissect them and reveal their flaws (A mink again! The gift of doom!), only to have his niece turn the tables on him and use her gift to reveal his own secret (when she finds the inscription he missed.) Ultimately, his last object-taking in this scene will spell his doom, when his niece later investigates just what he removed from the paper.

Hitchcock knew that the easiest way to encapsulate the meaning of a scene was to end on an object changing hands, concretely passing on meaning, not just from one character to another, but also from this scene to those later scenes that will reference that object again.

But Charlie’s uncle doesn’t just give her the ring, of course: he first says “give me your hand” (which is not a fair trade.) His seduction of the family is as physical as it is psychological. The two kids, who are comic relief, take their gifts immediately without contact, but he has to touch each of the adults (once and only once) to get them to relent and take his tainted gifts. Later in the movie the touches will turn more violent, as push comes to shove, but Hitchcock also understood that any pat on the head could be a prelude to a knife in the back. As a writer, you’re charting that progression of physical contact as surely as you’re escalating the dialogue.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Underrated Movie #118: Caught

Title: Caught
Year: 1949
Director: Max Ophuls (La Ronde)
Writer: Arthur Laurents (supposedly from the novel “Wild Calendar” by Libbie Block)
Stars: Barbara Bel Geddes, James Mason, Robert Ryan

The Story: A poor young women flips through a fashion magazine, wondering how she’ll ever get a mink coat. She gets her chance by marrying a dead-eyed tycoon who treats her like furniture. She finds the courage to flee her trap, taking a meager secretary job for a downwardly-mobile pediatrician. But she doesn’t suspect that she’s caught in more ways that one…

How it Came to be Underrated: Ophuls started and ended his career in Europe, only coming to America for a few years of very underrated movies.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Arthur Laurents (Rope, the books for “Gypsy” and “West Side Story”) died earlier this month at 92 and did great work right up to the end. For this movie, neither he nor Ophuls were happy with the book they were assigned. Instead, they would trade stories of the wickedness of Howard Hughes, who had screwed both of them earlier in their careers. They decided to turn this into a barbed portrait of people like Hughes (Ryan’s ice-cold-hate at its best) and the damage they cause.
  2. Girl-next-door Bel Geddes was great in movies like Vertigo, but she rarely got a chance to star. It’s ironic that she finally got to shine in a movie about a fashion model, which wasn’t her look at all, but Ophuls knew what he was doing. There’s no worse case of “miscasting” in Hollywood history than The Graduate, which was written for Robert Redford, who would have made so much more sense, given that the character’s parents are WASPs and everybody treats him like a big hunk. But they brilliantly cast nebbish-y newcomer Dustin Hoffman instead, because they understood that you don’t cast for how the character would actually look, you cast for how they feel. This character in Caught should probably look like Marilyn Monroe, but she feels mousy, so they cast mousy.
  3. This is a one of the first and best movies about the problem that dared not speak its name. Ophuls captures the cruel trap of snide assumptions: When you marry above your station, everyone assumes that you did it for mercenary reasons, but no one will say that out loud, which means that you’ll never have a chance to defend yourself. Bel Geddes is “living the dream”, so no one will believe her that it’s a nightmare. Every time she tries to tell anybody about her despair, they tell her to buy a new hat.
  4. A girl ruins her life to get a mink, which becomes a badge of shame, then she freezes rather than wear it, then makes her peace with a cloth coat: the symbol of humility. What a strange status symbol the mink coat was... Aside from the dead animal issues, they certainly weren’t flattering to anybody’s figure. And weren’t they hot?? Were these girls always cold? Was that the problem?

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Two other great American movies by Ophuls are The Reckless Moment and Letter From an Unknown Woman. Another great proto-feminist noir is My Name is Julia Ross.

How Available Is It?: I featured this before on my round-up of unavailable movies, but now I’m happy to say that it’s available to watch instantly. As you can see from these stills, the print is a little soft, but watchable. Ophuls’s always-lush cinematography comes through.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Dandy For the Torrid Business Man!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

How to Build a Scene, Part 3: Choose an Emotional Location

I’ve talked before about the value of choosing locations that keep your characters on their feet, but think about locations that emotionally heighten scenes as well. Every scene will become much more interesting if you can set it in a place that your hero either longs or loathes to go, rather than in a neutral place that they have no feelings about. Either way, you’ll make it tougher on your them.

If your heroine has to say something to her now-married crush, and he ushers her into another room for the conversation, have it be his bedroom and not his living room. Every time she takes a step closer or farther from that bed, she’ll feel it.As I mentioned before, The Town does it wrong. A bank robber has to woo the teller that he held up, so he meets with her at a Laundromat, then a Dunkin’ Donuts, then a community garden. These are neutral locations. If he has to talk to her again, why not force him to go back to the bank to do it? That’s a very uncomfortable location for him. It will constantly remind both him and the audience of the essential danger of this relationship.

This is your world. If you create a setting with subtextual meaning, then that’s one less thing you have to cram into the text. You take the burden off the dialogue. Don’t make your characters keep saying what they’re worried about, put what they’re worried about in the room, between them and their goal, and force them to physically go over, under, or through it to get what they want.

Don’t get embarrassed. The audience is far more accepting of unlikely locations than they are of melodramatic dialogue. If you give your actors a lot to react to, then they get to underact. If you make them churn up all the drama through dialogue, then they have to overact. Make it easy for them by choosing a location that is as extreme as you can get away with. Don’t just lower your archaeologist into an ancient crypt, make it an ancient crypt filled with snakes (after you’ve pre-loaded the scene by mentioning that he really hates snakes). Don’t just put him undercover at a Nazi rally, put him face-to-face with Hitler! Now you’ve got a memorable scene.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

How to Build a Scene, Part 2: Figure Out What The Scene Has To Do

Obviously, the main question you have to ask yourself is: What is the main action and end result of this scene? But there are also some other questions you should remember to ask…

1) Is this scene a reversal or merely an escalation? I used to think that every scene had to be a reversal, but ironically, this quickly becomes boring. In every scene, the character is trying to get to the next step, but they cannot always succeed. In some scenes, the tension should not break, so that the problem merely escalates. These scenes may lead the hero to change tactics, but not change course. Rather, the hero just recommits with a little more knowledge and a little more intensity.

2) Which questions will be answered and what new questions will be asked? The best way to get from scene to scene without jarring the audience is by having the first shot of this scene answer a question posed, explicitly or implicitly, by the last shot of the previous scene, so that’s the first question you’re answering. But if you want to move the plot forward you’ll reach back and answer other outstanding questions as well, then ask some new ones…

The most obvious way to do this is to have the character ask an unanswered question out loud (“How could he be murdered in a locked room?”), but the shot itself can also pose questions (Whose point of view is this?) Cutting to a new person asks a question (Who is this person? Are they important?). Showing a mysterious action works too (What’s this character trying to do?)…

In a movie like Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, sometimes we know what the heroes are doing and so the question we ask is, “Will it work?” Other times we don’t know and so our question becomes, “What are they up to?” Usually the next scene answers these questions, but sometimes we get no answer until the end of the story, when we can finally see the full picture. Of course, if you put too many enigmatic scenes in a row, you’ll lose your audience. But if you have too many scenes that just set questions up and then knock ‘em down, then the story will seem plodding and episodic, not building a larger narrative. Mix quick pay-offs with longer mysteries.

3) What opportunities are there to reveal a little bit more about a character’s past (whether they’re in the scene or not)? One thing I’ve learned about exposition is this: never info-dump when you can info-drip. We all hate scenes in which the hero gazes off into the distance and tells us about their childhood. Instead, sprinkle teasing tidbits of information about the larger world of your characters throughout the story...Instead of stopping the story to tell your audience and bunch of info they didn’t ask for, you get to tease it out bit by bit, so that this, too, becomes a source of suspense. What is this incident they don’t want to talk about? Why happened in Paris? What happened in Chinatown? Why is that musical pocketwatch so important to him?

Once you know what you need to do, the question becomes where to do it? We’ll pick up there tomorrow…

Monday, May 23, 2011

How to Build a Scene, Part 1: Stop! Go Back!

Screenwriters, playwrights and novelists have a wonderful tool that serialized writers lack: we can write backwards. If you find you’ve run into trouble with a scene, or a character, or a plot, don’t try to plow forward and write your way out of it. Plow backwards, and bury the seed of the solution far enough in the past that it’ll be ready to sprout just when you need it. As with most other problems in life, the best time to fix a scene is before it starts:

  • If something wild is going to happen in this scene, can you foreshadow it? The audience is less likely to say “this makes no sense,” if they’re too busy saying, “Oh, this must be what that was referring to earlier! How clever!” “Doctor Who” gets away with this trick a lot.
  • Can you establish that the characters have painfully unrealistic expectations about what’s going to happen? A reversal is so much more upsetting if we know that the character (and the audience) were fully expecting and depending on a totally different outcome. Maybe you can add a little brief scene beforehand where the hero rehearses how well they think that it’s going to go… Or if they’re about to find a key resource is gone, then you end the previous scene by giving them a boast about how they’ve got an ace in the hole.
  • Can you pre-load the dialogue with meaning? If the hero said, many scenes back, “I always know she’s coming back because she always says [blank]” Then, in this scene, when she doesn’t say that, we instantly guess how serious it is, at the same time our hero does.

Think of the scene in Singles where Bridget Fonda sneezes and her humbled ex-boyfriend Matt Dillon automatically mumbles, “Bless you.” That’s it, but it’s a wonderful love scene, because we had heard her tell a friend many scenes back about how heartbreaking it was that he never said that. Rather than put them in that elevator and force them to spew reams of dialogue about how he’s changed and how she’s maybe ready to believe him, we get a wonderful two word scene that convinces us they will get back together, because the writer was clever enough to lay the groundwork beforehand.

Audiences love this. We love learning the secret language of characters. We love knowing that, for her, “bless you” means, “I love you.” We love it especially when we forget all about it, then see it suddenly pay off much later. Only if we know the characters’ expectations beforehand can we experience the same emotion reactions at the same time as they do. This is true emotional identification.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Underrated Movie #117: Son of Paleface

Title: Son of Paleface
Year: 1952
Director: Frank Tashlin (Artists and Models, The Girl Can’t Help It)
Writers: Frank Tashlin, Robert L. Welch, Joseph Quillan
Stars: Bob Hope, Jane Russell, Roy Rogers, Trigger

The Story: Hope is a Harvard-educated boob who goes back out west to claim his father’s missing fortune. While there, he becomes a pawn in the battle between Rogers’s singing gunslinger and Russell’s buxom bandit.

How it Came to be Underrated: Bob Hope allowed himself to be defined for two generations as merely “that guy who sure loved the Vietnam war.” Whether or not you think that puts him on the wrong side of history, it certainly wasn’t at all funny. This is a shame because before that he was one of the smartest, funniest, and most consistently daring screen comics.

Why It’s Great:

  1. My first clue that I’d been foolish to avoid Hope was when I heard that his movies were Woody Allen’s favorite American comedies. Sure enough, Woody’s persona in his funniest movies owes a lot to Hope: a horny, clever, wisecracking, self-deprecating goof who seems to somehow know he’s in a movie and always makes sure that those folks over there behind the fourth wall are having a great time.
  2. This is a pseudo-sequel to The Paleface, also with Hope and Russell, which was funny but nowhere near this good. Tashlin was one of the writers of that one as well but didn’t direct. Seeing how much better that one could have been finally convinced him to get back behind the camera, bringing the same anarchy to the big screen that he had brought to his Bugs Bunny cartoons. This paid off spectacularly—Nobody but Tashlin himself could capture his own madcap mind. (Like, for instance, when Hope gets some advice from his father down in Hell…)
  3. After Howard Hughes gave her a big star build-up for The Outlaw, then failed to release it, Russell got her belated introduction to audiences with the first Paleface, which proved her comedic talents were just an ample as her other charms. She was so good that they had to bring her back for this one even though it meant that Hope’s character was falling for a gal who looked a lot like his mom.
  4. Roy Rogers is another once-ubiquitous star who is too-little-seen today. The problem is that he showed the same enormous appeal in several dozen versions of the same movie, none of which stood out very much from the others, so modern DVD renters have no idea where to start. This movie, one of the few where he didn’t get top billing, is a great introduction that shows why he was so perpetually popular. Like Hope, he’s a lot more modern in his humor that you might think. He’s certainly not shy about implying that he’s amorously inclined toward Trigger.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Hope does the same thing for film noir in My Favorite Brunette that he does for westerns here. Russell is also great in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

How Available Is It?: It just disappeared off of Netflix entirely! Boo!

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Sex is for Suckers! Bullets For Redheads! Two Quid!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Books vs. Movies, Finale: Movies Must Climax

Unlike books, we demand that movies always escalate towards an urgent climax. This is because you enjoy a book on your own time, but you enjoy a movie on their time.

They tell you what time to get to the theater. They turn the lights off and close the doors. They force you to share an armrest. Although you are in a massive room, it is a fundamentally claustrophobic experience. The longer you sit there, the more anxious you’re going to get, so you expect the movie to reflect your growing anxiety. The pulse of a movie must increase. Why? Because the pulse of messages you are getting from your bladders is increasing.

Books are different. You can come and go at your leisure. What draws you back is how much you’re enjoying the book. Of course, readers do occasionally indulge in the “guilty pleasure” of a page-turner that “won’t let them go”, but after they put it down, they quickly forget it and they’re embarrassed to admit to their friends that they read it. On the other hand, the books that readers truly love are those that provide a great experience not just as they’re being read, but also encourage a long contemplative thought process in between reading sessions—contemplation that continues long after the book is “finished”.We can accept books that have all the urgency in the beginning, like “Rabbit, Run”, or at the midpoint, like “White Noise”. We can even accept books that are anticlimactic, like “Huckleberry Finn”, or “The Bridge at San Luis Rey”. But it’s no surprise that none of these four novels has been turned into a satisfactory movie. Movies, even very quiet, very subtle movies, must have at least a somewhat urgent climax at the end. The exceptions are very, very rare.Of the 116 underrated movies I’ve covered here, I can think of only two, Killer of Sheep and Funny Ha Ha that don’t have much of a climax. Unsurprisingly, both movies were self-financed by the filmmaker. Each movie is excellent and ends powerfully with a hard-won change in its main character, but in each case that growth arrives without any sense of urgency. So it can be done, but only if the moviemakers are willing to create a whole new laid-back cinematic language, as these movies do. And forget about getting anyone else to pay you to do it.

I worked in a movie theater that was showing John Sayles’s neat little Alaska-set pseudo-thriller Limbo, which ends just before the climax of the action, leaving viewers in a state of… you guessed it. Most of the viewers liked the movie, but a significant few were incensed by the ending, and demanded their money back. One even “picketed” the movie, marching back and forth imploring people in line for the next show to save their money.When acclaimed playwright Kenneth Lonergan sold his first Hollywood spec script, Analyze This, he quickly became exasperated by the notes process. They kept telling him he needed a climax, and he kept saying that there already was one. Finally they said no, a climax must bring all the actors together in one place so all of the revelations can come out at the same time. He complained, “You’re not even giving me notes about my movie anymore, you’re just giving me generic notes.”

Hearing this, I sympathized with both sides. Lonergan hadn’t accepted that movies, far more than theater (because of the great expense involved), are a collective experience, where a collective of artists comes together to follow collective standards to please a collective audience. Unless you’re a master screenwriter who knows how to break the rules expertly, then you only get to decide the content, not the format. I never saw Analyze This, but just from hearing his telling of the story, I guessed that I probably would have given him the same note.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Books vs. Movies, Part 8: There is Only Do

Movie adaptations of novels must find a way to substitute the invisible or internal drama of the book with visible or intrapersonal drama. Or, as Yoda would say: There is no try, there is only do.

The Secret Lives of Dentists is an adaptation of a book in which a dentist is trying to decide whether or not to confront his wife about her affair. This should be an impossible movie to make. How can we see that conflict onscreen? How can we hear it? Amazingly, the screenwriter makes it work, and he uses almost every possible tool...

Yes, he uses voiceover, but he goes much further: We see the hero’s dreams. We see his idle daydreams. We see his fever-driven hallucinations. We see his sexual fantasies. The character even creates another, imaginary character to debate the issue with, and we hear them talk it over. Eventually, the internal tension within the family is also visualized when it takes the form of physical illness and everybody starts vomiting. Now we have a movie.Think about how much easier it was to adapt the Harry Potter movies because of one simple decision Rowling the novelist made: Harry isn’t a reader. What if Harry did his own library research, and the drama in the books came from him working through these problems in his own head? This wouldn’t really change the feel of the books much, but the movie adapters would have been screwed. You can’t film that. But they were lucky: Harry never reads. He gets his friend to do the reading for him and then asks her to sum it up for him, while he argues with her about what it all might mean. Far more cinematic. If Rowling hadn’t invented Hermione Granger, then the screenwriters would have had to dream her up on their own.

Right now I’m adapting a book about an avid reader who is consumed by a lonely, internal dilemma which she cannot discuss with anyone else. Pity me. Do I invent a confidant? Will fans of the book accept that? Do I just use voice-over? Do I change the nature of the problem from one that must be solved internally to one that can be solved externally? Why, oh why, did I ever take this job? From now on, I swear to only adapt books about doers. Movies aren’t kind to thinkers.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Books vs. Movies, Part 7: Seeing is Believing

(Yes, folks, we’ve spilled over into a third week of this, but I’ll try to keep it lively as we barrel towards the grand finale...)

People tend to trust everything they see in movies, almost to a ludicrous degree. It seems strange today that people found Kurosawa’s Rashomon (by no means his strongest movie) so mind-blowing, simply because it showed contradictory versions of a story on screen, which was considered totally “against the rules”. Hitchcock had tried it a year earlier in Stage Fright, which just caused everyone to totally reject that movie, but for whatever reason, Rashomon broke through to American audiences. Even so, it was quickly declared the exception that proved the rule: every movie after that that tried it was called “Rashomon-like.”Eventually, visualized lies became more common, and most audiences have been trained to not feel betrayed, but there still seems to be a deep-seated need for audiences to believe everything they see. When my college showed The Usual Suspects, I heard a fellow English major walk out afterwards, trying to figure out the movie with her date. She started by saying, “Well, we know that everything we saw on screen really happened, so what would explain all that??”

I was baffled. Let’s ignore for a moment that the whole point of the movie is that everything we’ve seen except the first and last scene was a big lie. Instead, let’s just focus on the fact that movie first shows us Gabriel Byrne blowing up the ship, then later shows Kevin Spacey standing in the same spot and doing it in the same way. How could any sophisticated college student refuse to accept that they might have been shown a false (and shifting) flashback?In books, on the other hand, unreliable narrators are very common. Sometimes we trust them to relate the events as they happened but don’t trust their moral perspective (We don’t accept that Huckleberry Finn is going to hell). Others tell such a self-serving narrative that we strongly suspect that they’re twisting everything (Humbert Humbert in “Lolita”). Others flat out lie to us (the killer of Agatha Christie’s “Roger Ackroyd”). Books can even have unreliable third-person “omniscient” narrators (The text of Voltaire’s “Candide” keeps telling us that everything that happens to its hero is the best possible outcome, but we don’t believe it).

Movies occasionally have unreliable voice-overs (Days of Heaven, Election), but the events we actually see are still portrayed objectively. Even the visualized lies of Stage Fright, Rashomon and The Usual Suspects are not true examples of unreliable narrators, since, in each case, the lies eventually end and we return to an objective reality at the end of the movie.

Some would say that it’s inherently impossible to have a truly unreliable narrator on film. After all, as I’ve said throughout this week, we aren’t looking through the hero’s eyes but rather over the hero’s shoulder. One of the things they try to teach you in film school, however, is that a well-directed movie is not objective, and every scene is still “from” a character’s point of view, even if we can see them on screen. They teach you to stop using co-equal two-shots and instead use more “over the shoulder” shots, so as to let the audience know which character to emotionally identify with in each scene. This creates a situation that novelists would call “limited third-person”, where the narration is told about, not by, the hero, but is still mostly limited to his or her perspective.But if “Candide” can have a skewed third-person perspective, why not movies? Ten years ago there was a rash of movies showing us the hero’s delusions onscreen: Fight Club, American Psycho, A Beautiful Mind, etc, but in these movies, it was the images that were lying to the hero, rather than the hero lying to us through the images. When it was revealed that it was all a delusion, the heroes were as shocked as we were. Has there ever been a movie where everything we see on screen is dubious, told to us by a narrator who has reason to lie to us? The closest thing I can come up with is Mike Hodges’s woefully underrated Pulp. Can you guys think of any others?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Underrated Movie #116: The Small Back Room

Title: The Small Back Room
Year: 1949
Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Writers: Powell and Pressburger, based on the novel by Nigel Balchin
Stars: David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Jack Hawkins, Michael Gough

The Story: A brilliant, wounded scientist does what he can to continue the fight from the homefront as one of the vaunted “back-room boys”. Along the way, he tries to avoid being overwhelmed by petty inter-office politics and his own personal bitterness. Things come to a head when he becomes obsessed with defusing a deadly new type of booby-trapped bomb.

How it Came to be Underrated: All of Powell’s movies (with or without Pressburger) were underrated for years. Most of them have been gradually re-discovered recently, but this one has still fallen through the cracks, unknown even by many of Powell’s fans.

Why It’s Great:

  1. This is one of the best movies ever made about the day-to-day struggles in the lives of scientists. In one scene, they hear that the minister is coming by so they mock up a phony bubbling-beaker experiment to make it look like they’re “doing science,” since there’s nothing that looks worse than a room full of well-paid people sitting around just thinking.
  2. During wartime, Powell and Pressburger made lots of thrilling “we can do it” war movies to help the effort. It’s shocking to see them revisit the same events after the war with a far more jaundiced eye. Farrar’s increasing desperation to have a drink to dull the pain of his wound allows their more expressionistic side to come out.
  3. Two great ways to juice up a scene: (1) Two mature adults agree to keep the peace by not talking about something, then someone immature comes in the room and that’s all they want to talk about. (2) An endlessly-ringing phone that the characters refuse to answer. We’ve all felt the urge to not answer, but we all know how it unbearable it becomes after too long. For the most part, voicemail has taken this wonderful cinematic device from us.
  4. Whenever I see a movie that re-unites the stars of another movie I can’t help but imagine that it’s the same two characters who have moved on to very different lives, which would mean that Farrar and Byron, before they became a secretary and a scientist, had a secret history as a crazy nun and a randy mountain-man in the Himalayas (as seen in Black Narcissus).

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: You can find more addiction-cursed post-war blues in Billy Wilder’s The Long Weekend and Nick Ray’s Bigger Than Life.

How Available Is It?: It’s got a nice Criterion DVD with an excellent commentary by a veddy-British film historian.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: This Nazi Family!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Our Long National Nightmare Continues

The epic blogspot crash of aught-10 is officially over, but the damage will live on. This blog lost six fine comments (3 each on the last two days’ posts), too young to have their brief flames snuffed out. I salute them. I had a post ready to go yesterday, but maybe I should just save it for next week now... (The saddest thing about all this was that I kept waiting for the crippling of 90% of the blogosphere to make the news somewhere, but it never did... as if perhaps we’re all just talking to ourselves here...)

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Books vs. Movies, Part 6: The Present is Tense

Almost every novel is written in the past tense, even white-knuckle nail-biters. These things aren’t happening now, they happened before. The prose in movie scripts (though the audience never gets to read it) is always written in present tense. Why is this?

Usually, in a book, they don’t specify what the perspective of this retrospective narrator is. We just accept that, as some point after these events, they sat down to tell us this story, even in books like “Double Indemnity”, where the hero keeps narrating in the past tense right up until the moment he dies in the final line.

Some book narrators say things like “I didn’t know then that that would be the last time I ever saw him”, but more often they don’t acknowledge that they now know what happens after the events they’re describing. Nevertheless, we have the sense that they have a little more perspective than someone would have if they were actually experiencing these things in real time. At the very least, they know which things to describe and which to leave out, or else they wouldn’t be able to tell the story. They can’t just indiscriminately describe everything they see and hear.

But the reason that screenwriters write in present tense is to remind themselves that their heroes lack that perspective. This stuff hasn’t already happened, it’s happening now. In a movie, the audience actually sees and hears the same things hero does, not just what the hero chooses to describe.

This has advantages and disadvantages for the moviemaker. Movies have more ability to drop clues that the hero and the audience miss, buried amongst those sights and sounds that aren’t important to the story. Books heroes have to line up all their perceptions in a row, one after another, and can’t turn the volume down on a key clue so that it’s low in the mix. Every reader will see every word, and they will know that each word is important to the story. We don’t really buy it when a first-person narrator misses a clue, because they were the ones who told us about the clue earlier, so they obviously spotted it.

I talked yesterday about how audiences demand that movie heroes have faster reaction time than book heroes. The corollary of this is that movie heroes have to act with less information and less perspective. Book heroes have already processed their story. Movie heroes are attempting to process everything at the same time we are. They’re living in the present, which makes them a lot more tense.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Books vs. Movies, Part 5: Movies Have Faster Reaction Time

Movies demand a tighter time frame than books. A book can chart a dawning realization. A first-person narrator will tell us what they see at the time, then think about it for weeks or years, and then go back and revisit that memory with fresh eyes. Every time they return to a previous event from a new perspective, they can describe to us for the first time the things that they failed to see before.

In a movie, audiences quickly get fed up with this. Why? Instead of being limited by the main character’s perspective, we’re looking over their shoulder. If we see something, we expect them to see it too, and we expect them to react quickly, not sit around thinking about it. As a result, audiences demand that movies move a lot faster than books.

It’s no accident that the book “Six Days of the Condor” became a movie called Three Days of the Condor. “Seven Days in May”, on the other hand, was a best-seller, so they couldn’t to change the title, but director John Frankenheimer points out in the DVD commentary that if you actually go through the movie and count the days, there are only six. Movies compress.

Even when movies take place over a long period of time, they have to feel like they’re taking place over a short period of time. Every episode of “Law and Order” took place over the course of two years, but most non-legal-minded viewers probably assumed that the events took place over the course of a week, and the show did nothing to disabuse that notion.

If the hero of a book suffers from indecision that keeps them from reacting quickly, we can accept that, because we’re in their head with them, and we can get all the conflict we crave by reading about their inner struggle. But we cannot forgive any excessive delay in our movie heroes. We cannot see or feel their inner struggle, so it has no interest to us. If they are disconnected from the actions around them, we get angry. If they are failing to see what we see and react as we would want them to react, we give up on them.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Books vs. Movies, Part 4: Movies Must Be Explicable

The actions of movie characters must be explicable. This is less true of characters in books. In Camus’s “The Stranger”, we never quite understand why Meursault kills that arab, but the reader doesn’t react by saying, “I didn’t buy it when he killed that guy.” Because we have been following Meursault’s nihilistic internal narrative, we accept that he would do it, even though he has no good reason.

Movies can’t get away with this. If the audience cannot understand why someone on screen would do something, they don’t chalk it up to the inscrutability of the character, they blame the moviemakers. A movie character whose actions are baffling is judged to be a poorly-conceived character. We don’t buy that they simply had no good reason, because the character hasn’t been able to convince us of that with an internal monologue.

Because we are locked out of their head, it becomes our job to divine their inner thoughts. In some ways, movies are even more about internality than books are, because every action and behavior in a movie is taken by the audience as a clue to that missing holy grail: the internal lives of the characters. If the moviemakers give us clues that point nowhere, then we simply assume that they failed. It would never occur to a moviegoer that a protagonist, like Meursault, might have no internal logic, and no good reason for doing what they do.

Occasionally, a daring moviemaker will attempt to break this rule and shock us by having a hero do something that totally contradicts everything we’ve seen them do up until that point. One obvious example is when Mookie throws the garbage can through the pizza place window in Lee’s Do the Right Thing. After all, Mookie had been the one person in the neighborhood who had consistently defended the establishment.

But this is the exception that proves the rule, because as soon as Mookie does this, the audience become focused like a laser on one thing: going back through everything we’ve seen to find an explanation for what Mookie did. And Lee doesn’t leave us dangling in the wind: he hangs a big sign on one piece of dialogue. We cannot help but conclude that Mookie had Da Mayor’s cryptic words in his head when he did it: “Always do the right thing.” If Lee hadn’t pointed us in that direction by making that the title of the movie, the audience might have said “I dunno, I just didn’t buy it when Mookie did that.” That would have been the movie’s death sentence.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Books vs. Movies, Part 3: Friends vs. Strangers

It all comes down to this: A book is a friend. A movie is a stranger with a problem.

You invest more of yourself (i.e. more money) in a book, you invite it into your house, you visit it multiple times for multiple hours, you have to actively commit to it in order to keep the experience going. But a movie is totally different: You invest less; you meet it socially, in a neutral location; you only agree to sit down with it once; and you can just sit there passively and judge the story, without committing to it. Therefore the movie (the stranger) must stick to the point, in a way that a book (your friend) doesn’t have to do.

Every scene in a movie has to be (at least tangentially) about one problem. After all, if you agree to sit down with a stranger to talk about their problem, then you will become very impatient if they suddenly start talking about something else from their life unrelated to that. There is an understanding that you’re only there to hear about one thing. Friends, on the other hand, can jump around and talk about a bunch of different problems or just make idle chit-chat about what they did all day. You like the sound of their voice, and if they drop a random tangent they can always finish it up at a later time.

The book “L.A. Confidential” had a massive sub-plot about the hero’s difficult relationship with his retired father. The screenwriter struggled mightily to include it, but it shrunk down more and more in each draft. Finally, it disappeared altogether, and the hero became an orphan. Wise move. There’s nothing worse than an adaptation that feels the need to include brief glimpses of every subplot from the book, even if they won’t have the time to play out in a satisfactory way.

As always, when writing a movie, think of that talkative passenger seated next to you on the plane. If he starts telling you a surprisingly involving story about some police corruption he helped to expose, would you want him to suddenly say, “Oh, by the way, at the time I was also dealing with a lot of issues with my father, so let me tell you about that, too...” Nope. You would say, “Actually, I’d much rather hear the end of the story you already started, if that’s alright with you.”

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Books vs. Movies, Part 2: There is No "i" in "Film"

Movies are collaborative. Extremely collaborative. Novelists who try to cross-over are always shocked to discover that nobody in moviemaking is allowed to say, “I chose that setting because it had a special meaning to me.” By the time the movie gets made, too many people are going to have to spend too much money re-creating that time and place, so you have to be able to justify why that setting is essential to the meaning of your story (especially if it’s an expensive setting).

But it goes further than that. On the most fundamental level, the screenwriter can’t even say, “that plot turn happens that way because I decided to do it that way.” There is no “i” in “film”. There is only “we”. Eventually, you will have to justify and explain the meaning of every single choice, from character to setting to theme, not only to your artistic collaborators but to everyone putting any money into the project. The only way to justify your choices is to explain that your choice serves the story. The story is never allowed to serve your choice.

This creates a weird situation in which you have several artists all putting their fingers on the Ouija board and attempting to collectively divine what the story wants, without anyone seeming to push it in any particular direction. Because every decision has to justify itself to the movie’s theme, this results in movies being far more thematically “pure” than books. This is also one reason why movies having more collective meaning than books: because every decision the moviemakers made already had to have collective meaning to the team that made it.

You can read a book like “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”, and when you get to the bizarre interlude about the wolves in Alaska, you can only conclude, “Okay, I guess Chabon got bored and decided to wake himself up.” Maybe you go along and enjoy it or maybe you don’t, but you don’t question Chabon’s right to shake things up. After all, it’s his novel. But in a movie this would be totally unacceptable to the audience. A movie doesn’t actually belong to the director or the screenwriter or any of the collaborators. It belongs to the audience.

And yet, you might think that this would result in an audience bonding more with a movie than with a book, but you’d be wrong. More on this when we return…