Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Tale of Two Pilots

So I watched two CBS pilots this week and they made for a great lesson in the difference between having a great concept and having a great execution.

The fall pilot I was most looking forward to was “Person of Interest.” It was created by Jonathan Nolan, (co-author of most of his brother Chris’s movies), it co-stars the always brilliant Michael Emerson (whom I’ve been a fan of since “The Practice”, for which he won an Emmy long before he worked his magic on “Lost”) and Jim Caviezel (who I hadn’t seen much of, but was good in The Thin Red Line)

More importantly, it had a great premise: A reclusive billionaire, tapping into cameras all over the city, develops a algorithm that can predict patterns of behavior, identifying people who will become involved in violent crimes before those crimes happen, so he recruits a former CIA agent to help him intervene. Creepy and fun!

But it may have been the worse pilot I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen a lot of terrible pilots). Not one scene, not one line of dialogue worked. It was a 100% disaster. Emerson’s fine, but all he does is deliver exposition. He’s a plot device, not a character. Caveizel, on the other hand, is absolutely extraordinary: so sullen, so lifeless, so bland… was he whacked out on painkillers when they made this? Did he refuse to star until they put a gun to his head, then stumbled through it under duress? Baffling.

But it hardly matters, given the quality of the script. Yes, Caviezel knows who will be involved in crimes, but he doesn’t intervene proactively. Instead, he follows the person around, waits for the crime to happen, then shoots the evildoers dead and dumps their bodies in the meadowlands. That’s his brilliant modus operandi.

But surely the story will slowly expand and become more interesting, right? Not if they can help it: Emerson fully explains the origin and methodology of his process, then explicitly says, over and over throughout the pilot, that this same procedure will be repeated, in exactly the same way, week after week. He even introduces the pilot’s person of interest by saying: “This week I’m focused on her.” Get it, folks at home? We’re promising that there will be a new, self-contained case every week! No loose ends, we promise! Ugh.If “Person of Interest” showed what happens when you have a great premise with terrible execution, then “A Gifted Man” shows what happens when you have a terrible premise with great execution. Here’s the idea: an asshole neurosurgeon gets weekly visits from the sweet-natured ghost of his ex-wife, who tries to teach him to be a better person. Ouch! Painful!

But this is the best pilot of the year so far. Everybody involved, creator Suzannah Grant, director Jonathan Demme, and stars Patrick Wilson and Jennifer Ehle, are movie people who are new to network TV and haven’t grown complacent about their new medium yet. The characters are vivid and believable. The story is compelling and thought-provoking. The emotions are hard-earned and raw.

Why did one pilot turn out so well and the other so badly? When I was watching “Person of Interest”, I kept complaining to Betsy that it was too “CBS-y”. In other words: the dialogue was too on-the-nose, the emotional moments lacked subtext, and it was too much of a procedural. I got the distinct impression that the original script might have been interesting, but they made the mistake of selling it to CBS, who buried them in notes that utterly violated the premise until the whole thing became a flavorless lump.

I’ve gotten pretty good at singling out which dialogue was written by the creator and which lines were inserted by the network execs (“This week I’m focused on her”), but “A Gifted Man” didn’t seem to have any of those lines.* Why not? Because they sold their pilot to the right network. The concept was so purely-CBS that the network was able to simply trust the very talented creators to execute it as they saw fit. This round peg slid so smoothly into its round hole that no hammering was necessary, so it never got bent out of shape.

* Okay, just one, Wilson is talking to a tennis pro and says something like “Anyone who feels the need to be the best, whether they’re a tennis pro or a surgeon, knows….” That insert about the surgeon was almost certainly added by a network exec who was afraid that we wouldn’t know he was also talking about himself. Still, most pilot have about twenty of those clunky insertions.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Great Guru Showdown, Part 7: Syd Field

The Guru: Syd Field
The Book: Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting
The Year: 1979

The History: Field had been an unproduced screenwriter (aren’t we all?), a development exec, and a lecturer for many years, until he got fed up with the lack of any books about screenwriting. He wrote the first one and it became a wild success. He’s published several more books and lectured around the world ever since.

Outrageous Statement that Makes You Want to Reject the Book Outright: (On how well you have to know your characters) “I’ll write more than 20 pages, starting with my character’s parents and grandparents on both sides, and then I’ll even use past lives and astrology to further insight into my character.” Ah, the ‘70s…

Areas Where It’s Less Than Helpful:

  1. Field, like most screenwriting gurus, is maddeningly generic. Anyone who charges money for their seminars loses the luxury of saying “well maybe my ideas don’t apply to your story.” They have to insist that their ideas are universally applicable, which turns them into mush.
  2. And so phrases like “inciting incident” and “plot point” are too vague to be useful. Here’s a typical paragraph: “The function of the Plot Point is simple: It moves the story forward. Plot Point I and Plot Point II are the story points that hold the paradigm in place. They are the anchors of your story line” Oh, okay. Wait, what? It’s meaninglessness. It provides no real guidance.
  3. The now-omnipresent phrase “Inciting incident” makes no differentiation between the problem, the opportunity and the conflict. I’ll delve into that more soon...
  4. The other huge problem with Field’s structure, as you can see from the diagram, is that it leaves you totally adrift in the second act, without even a recognized midpoint, writers have no clue how to get through the meat of their screenplays. The result is that a lot of Field’s devotees wind up just marking time until the climax finally begins.

Useful Wisdom:

  1. For good or ill, Field ideas were generally applicable enough to give the entire industry some common terminology, such as “Act 1, Act 2 and Act 3,” which does greatly help the notes process.
  2. Field is the most laid-back of the major gurus. His tone is calm and helpful, he does a great job linking everything back to examples.
  3. He’s great with character creation and gives good examples of ways to show character through behavior.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Great Guru Showdown, Part 6: Joseph Campbell

The Guru: Joseph Campbell
The Book: The Hero With A Thousand Faces
The Year: 1949

The History: Campbell traveled the world, learned six languages, studied Freud, Jung, James Joyce and James Frazer, translated ancient tablets, and defined the underlying structure beneath heroic myths from every culture. His 1949 book was hugely influential. His popularity surged in the 1970s, when his work was embraced by both new agers and Hollywood storytellers like George Lucas.

Outrageous Statement that Makes You Want to Reject the Book Outright: The first line has not exactly aged well: “Whether we listen with aloof amusement to the dreamlike mumbo jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo, or read with cultivated rapture thin translations from the sonnets of the mystic Lao-tse … it will be always the one, shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story that we find.”

Areas Where It’s Less Than Helpful:

Campbell was a great man who humbled the world into seeing their myths from anthropological and artistic perspective, but attempts to apply his structure, derived from religious and foundation myths, directly to screenplays are very problematic....

  1. Campbell’s heroes start from a happy status quo, untroubled when the story begins, but this makes for very dull characters. There’s no volatile reaction between the character’s internal problems and the external action of the plot.
  2. Campbell’s very big on mentors, which I never see the need for.
  3. While Campbell’s circular chart is very elegant, how often do movie heroes, other than Frodo, actually “return with the elixir” to rescue their homelands? Movie execs quote this all the time, but I don’t think it applies.

Useful Wisdom:

  1. Obviously, we all owe Campbell for doing the research that proved there was such a thing as universal storytelling structure, and that it arose not from the genius of any one culture (as Aristotle would have it), but from the inherent needs of the stories themselves, with independent cultures all over the world discovering similar rules.
  2. One aspect of Campbell’s structure that I do find myself quoting a lot is the idea of “finding the special weapon in the cave” during the third quarter of the story (whether the special weapon is an object, a vital piece of information, or just a self-realization). A hero’s ultimate triumph should come from the failure of their original plan, not the success of it.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Great Guru Showdown, Part 5: Aristotle

The Guru: Aristotle
The Book: Poetics
The Year: 335 BCE, or thereabouts

The History: Aristotle (student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great) lectured on every subject under the sun, including the proper form and function of tragic plays. (There was possibly a companion volume on comedy, but that’s lost today.)

Outrageous Statement that Makes You Want to Reject the Book Outright: “The character will be good if the purpose is good. This rule is relative to each class. Even a woman may be good, and also a slave; though the woman may be said to be an inferior being, and the slave quite worthless.” Okee-Dokee then.

Areas Where It’s Less Than Helpful: I was assigned to read this on the first day of film school, but it didn’t do me much good. Students are hardwired to reject restrictions, so they pick up structure books looking for an excuse to fling them across the room, and Aristotle has no shortage of those:

  1. All heroes must come from royal families (An idea that poisoned English and French drama for centuries.)
  2. The whole drama should take place in one day in one place. (Ditto)
  3. In general, like most of the gurus we’ll look at, he’s overly didactic (“These are the only possible ways”), practically begging the student to find an exception and therefore reject everything.
  4. He had little use for happy endings, referring to the third act strictly as “the unraveling.” He didn’t leave any room for triumph.

Useful Wisdom: That said, re-reading it for this entry, I was shocked at how many of the book’s truths I had rejected only to “discover” them for myself much later. These include:

  1. Drama is about a person’s problem, not their life in general: “For tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality.”
  2. One problem should rule the story: “It should have for its subject a single action, whole and complete, with a beginning, a middle and an end.”
  3. The purpose of good writing is to take the “and then, and then” randomness of life and transform this into the “and so, and so” flow that exists only in fiction. (For some reason, Aristotle’s Greek is usually translated into Latin here, so this is called post hoc vs. propter hoc)
  4. The best dramas end in a realization (ignorance to wisdom) and a reversal (good fortune to bad, or vice versa). These can happen one after another, but in the very best stories, they happen simultaneously.
Tomorrow, we’ll jump all the way to the 20th century. Sorry, slavery-lovers.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Underrated Movie #133: Barcelona

Title: Barcelona
Director: Whit Stillman
Writer: Whit Stillman
Stars: Taylor Nichols, Chris Eigeman, Tushka Bergen, Mira Sorvino

The Story: A neurotic American salesman stationed in Barcelona in the ‘80s has to play host to his obnoxious Navy attaché cousin. They chase girls, bicker about their differences, and worry about the growing anti-American sentiment around them.

How it Came to be Underrated: All three of Stillman’s movies were cult hits at the time, but his strange disappearance from the scene has caused them all to fade from memory. He’s finally coming out with his first movie in 13 years this fall, so it’s a great time to rediscover his work.

Why It’s Great:

  1. The only acceptable form of movie voiceover is if it contradicts what we see onscreen. This movie justifies its voiceover immediately: Nichols tells us, “I was furious but tried not to show it,” just before we see him greet Eigeman with a terse growl of, “You could have called.” Clearly not as good at hiding his emotions as he imagines.
  2. This movie has more great one-liners per square inch than most ‘80s ants-in-you-pants comedies, helped by Eigeman’s blandly deadpan delivery: “You can’t say that Americans are more violent than other people, we’re just better shots.” Or: “You are a far weirder person than someone into S and M. At least they have a tradition.”
  3. Eigeman’s umbrage about Spanish resentment of America provides a lot of subtle humor. His fellow Americans beg him not wear his Navy blues, but he keeps indignantly saying “Men wearing this uniform died ridding Europe of fascism,” blithely oblivious to the fact that the U.S. cheerfully supported the fascist dictatorship in Spain throughout WW2 and far beyond.
  4. Eigeman and Nichols were both veterans of the ensemble in Stillman’s Metropolitan, and they both excelled upon graduating to these lead roles. There’s one silent scene of Eigeman figuring out a plot point from earlier in the movie and we read the whole thing on his face through the most subtle of facial gestures. Both have shown up in movies sporadically ever since, but never got much traction.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Eigemann was also great in Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming. Taylor was good as a screwed-over investor in Boiler Room.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD and Watch Instantly.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: How Can You Not Love This Kid and His Big-as-Life Hang-Ups?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Great Guru Showdown, Part 4: How Do They Line Up?

So we’ll begin at the end: here’s what our gurus look like, all lined up. This is the first (that I know of) structure guru concordance. Click to enbiggen it and then drink it in...Note how some of the structures are just different ways of saying the same thing, while other truly contradict each other (especially in the third quarter, which is always the hardest part of a story to define.)

And for those of you to lazy too click on it and see the full-size version (I know you’re out there), here’s a close-up of the beginnings:
The middles:
And the ends:
But who are these guys and gals, really? Next week we’ll talk about what they have to say that’s valuable and what’s not so helpful...

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Great Guru Showdown, Part 3: Are Gurus Helpful?

Story gurus have been around for a long time, but their track record is spotty at best. We associate Aristotle with the golden age of Greek theater (Sophocles, Aeschylus, etc.), but if you actually check the dates, you notice something disturbing: his study didn’t mark the beginning of the golden age but rather the sudden end of it.

Likewise, we associate the first screenwriting guru, Syd Field, with the American film renaissance of the ‘70s, but his book appeared in 1979, the year that that renaissance spectacularly wrecked itself (on the rocky shoals of Apocalypse Now and Heaven’s Gate) and the overall quality of Hollywood screenwriting has never fully recovered.

Is this coincidence, or not? Did Aristotle and Field directly cause the downfall of their beloved art forms by giving bad advice? Or is there a more innocent explanation: Did they perhaps write their advice books in a futile attempt to stop a downward trend in quality that had already begun? Or is there a third, subtler factor at work…

Goodhart’s Law states that, “once a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” In any field, it’s worthwhile to analyze several years’ worth of work and determine which methods tended to lead to success and which methods tended to lead to failure, but if you then mandate that only the “good” methods are allowed from then on, it hardly ever works. It could be that those methods weren’t the cause of the success, but a byproduct of it. Or maybe they only work if they’re learned through long experience, but they fail when they’re imposed from the outside.

“So what the hell are you doing with this blog, Matt? Aren’t you the one who’s always laying down rules for storytellers to follow? Are you trying to ruin us??” Of course I am- You’re my competition, you little fools! Wait, no, that’s not true. True confession: I run this blog mostly to teach myself things that I need to learn, and you people are just bystanders. I’ve never insisted that I can transform anybody from a grocery clerk into a millionaire screenwriter in three easy steps. I try to run this blog in a spirit of inquiry, not didacticism...

Absorbing someone else’s rules is a tricky proposition. If you haven’t already learned these things on your own, you’ll be dubious, but if you have, you’ll tear your hair out and ask, “Where were you when I needed you??” Ultimately, there’s no substitute for the learning power of making your own mistakes.

Advice, any advice, is useful only in certain situations. If you’ve already got your own self-generated angel on your shoulder telling you to do the right thing, but you can’t stop listening to the devil that’s tempting you to make the same old mistakes, then good advice can be very useful: a stern and steady voice to confirm and amplify your own wisdom. In the same situation, of course, bad advice can be very dangerous.

And so, hauling a heavy backpack filled with grains of salt, let’s look at what some gurus have had to say…

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Great Guru Showdown, Part 2: What is the Structure of a Problem?

Yesterday, we talked about the reason why most movies have a similar structure: because the structure of a movie is simply the structure of solving a problem, which is something that people have been trying to codify for centuries. Anyone who tries can be considered a “story guru”. Let’s look at a philosopher, for instance. Georg Hegel said that the structure of a problem was this:
  1. Thesis
  2. Antithesis
  3. Synthesis
That’s a different and useful way to re-conceive of “beginning, middle, and end.” What about therapists? They also structure problems. Here was Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s formulation of the structure of a certain kind of problem:
  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance
Grief movies such as Ordinary People use this structure. Here was how Abraham Maslow structured another kind of problem:
  1. Food and shelter
  2. Safety
  3. Friendship and Love
  4. Self-esteem and Confidence
  5. Problem-solving and justice
Survival and exile movies such as Brother from Another Planet use this structure. Everybody is trying to solve their problems, and failing, so everybody is trying to figure out how this process is supposed to work. That’s why we tell communal stories: to pass on parables about problem solving. We’ve looked at some problem-solving-structures we can use that were devised outside the world of drama, but what about those that are made specifically for storytellers? Are they more or less useful? We’ll examine the pros and cons tomorrow...

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Great Guru Showdown, Part 1: Why Do So Many Stories Have a Similar Structure?

Beginning writers take offense when they are told that most movies have a similar underlying structure. “Mediocre movies, maybe,” they say, “but not great movies like mine.” Only after they’ve been at it for a while, and written a lot of unsatisfying screenplays, do they begin to suspect that there’s something happening here, and what it is ain’t exactly clear.

One hard thing about accepting strict screenplay structures is that novelists don’t have to follow nearly as many rules. Of course we know that movies are not books but, some may ask, can’t moviemakers aspire to the superior status of novelists, and the freedom they enjoy? This attitude reveals a fundamental misconception.

Many think of movies as being the bastard stepchild of novels, but it’s actually the other way around. If you read the oldest existing writing guide, Aristotle’s “Poetics”, 90% of it applies to movies and less than 50% applies to books. Movies are public entertainment, which is an ancient tradition. Novels are prose, which is still a very new thing, historically speaking. I did a whole series on all of the fundamental differences.

So what is the nature of public, communal, one-seating entertainment? First and foremost, it’s this: as opposed to a book, a movie is about one problem. A book like “David Copperfield” can be about a person in his entirety, and all of the various problems that he experiences in his first thirty years on this planet. But a movie isn’t about a person, it’s about one problem that a person has.

The subject of the movie is the problem, and only the problem. The problem begins (or becomes acute) in the first scene, and ends (or is peacefully accepted) in the last scene. If you’re writing a lot of scenes in which the hero wakes up in the morning or goes to bed at night, you’re doing it wrong, because those scenes have nothing to do with the hero’s problem. The way to get from scene to scene is not to ask, “What does the hero do next?,” but rather, “What is the next step in the progression of this problem?”

Are there exceptions that break this rule and still work? Sure: Nashville, Slacker, Pulp Fiction, a handful of others… There are exceptions to every rule. But the people who made those movies weren’t able to go on flaunting the “one-problem” rule in movie after movie. For the rest of their careers, they alternated alternative-structure movies with traditional one-problem movies. Nobody escapes structure, in the end. The “one problem” rule will probably always dominate.

So the question isn’t “What is the structure of a movie?,” the question is “What is the structure of a problem?” Once you put it that way, you realize that this is nothing new. Lots of people have been trying to figure this out since history began, and still are. We’ll pick up there tomorrow…

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Underrated Movie #132: One Two Three

Title: One Two Three
Year: 1961
Director: Billy Wilder
Writers: Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond, based on the play by Ferenc Molnar
Stars: James Cagney, Horst Buchholz, Pamela Tiffin, Arlene Francis

The Story: A manic Coca-Cola executive in West Berlin tries to babysit his boss’s teenybopper daughter, but she manages to get pregnant by a young Communist firebrand, leaving him one wild weekend to resolve the situation.

How it Came to be Underrated: Many years ago, I was shooting a movie on my college campus over the course of several months. Then one day I turned the corner and found that someone had built a wall in the middle of my primary location. I freaked out. But that’s nothing compared to what happened to Wilder, who was in the middle of shooting several days of scenes at the Brandenburg Gate, only to show up one morning and discover that the East had walled off their side of town in the middle of the night. Not only did he have to go to Hungary to finish shooting, but his frothy comedy about zipping back and forth across the border suddenly seemed out of date and insensitive, hurting its box office and reputation ever since.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Revisiting the satirical antics of his early script Ninotchka, Wilder catches up to a much hotter cold war and his political wit was never more cutting or cutting edge. The Soviets brag about having missiles in Cuba (a year before America found out!) and just about every wild-eyed accusation that Buchholz throws at the Americans (such the CIA starting the Civil War in the Congo) was later proven true.
  2. And in case this whole thing seems out of date to you: he also shows the KGB mistakenly forcing a confession out of loyal communist Buchholz by playing “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Little Polka Dot Bikini” over and over. Which is hilarious, until you realize that the CIA still does this today.
  3. But there’s also an added and prescient wrinkle: America’s northeastern power structure was so busy keeping a wary eye on the East that they missed the real threat to their preeminence: the South. The idea of boorish Atlantans throwing their newfound money and power around was equally horrifying to American sophisticates at the time, and gets milked for all its worth here. (the Coke heiress feels right at home in a Communist parade because they’re all waving balloons that say “Yankee Go Home!”)
  4. This movie is infamous for running Cagney so ragged that he retired for twenty years. If so, it was a great way to go out with a bang. Wilder knew that only Cagney would be able to rattle off the dialogue as fast as he wanted, because he was determined to match the long-lost speed of screwballs like His Girl Friday. Things get so dizzy that the only possible score is the Sabre Dance.
  5. As with Kiss Me, Stupid, Wilder was raiding the Eastern European stage farces of his youth and updating them to (very) modern times. I can’t find a description of the original 1929 Molnar play online, and I can’t imagine what similar situation this could have been adapted from, yet somehow Wilder spotted a parallel and pounced.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Cagney is most famous for gangster roles but he was equally good in musicals like Footlight Parade and Yankee Doodle Dandy.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD and available to Watch Instantly.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: The World Through Teenagers’ Eyes!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The First 15 Minutes Project #6: The Little Tramp

The Little Tramp in Modern Times:

  1. Titles over a shot of a clock: “Modern Times: A story of industry, of individual enterprise—humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness.
  2. We see calves in a pen, then cross-dissolve into workers coming out of the subway.
  3. They march into work, clock in, then disappear into the machinery of the factory.
  4. A big guy pulls absurdly big levers to start the assembly line.
  5. Cut to President of Electro Steel company. He works on a jigsaw puzzle, then, bored, lazily checks out his employees on video screens. On a whim, he barks, “Section five, Speed her up!”
  6. Cut to our hero, the little tramp, tightening bolts as they pass down the line. He has to scratch himself and loses his place, which annoys the big guy who has to hammer the bolts after he tightens them. The tramp gets yelled at by floor manager.
  7. Then the tramp has a fly buzzing around him, so he tries to swat it and loses his place again. The floor manager comes to yell at him. The tramp argues back, which makes him lose his place again.
  8. The tramp’s wrench gets caught on a bolt and he can’t get it off in time. The line has to be stopped. The big guy gets yelled at instead of the tramp. They fight, but the line starts up again and they’re both instantly behind so they run to catch up.
  9. The boss randomly calls for even more speed.
  10. The tramp needs to use the restroom, so he hands off his job to the floor manager, but he can’t stop his repetitive motion even when he’s off the line.
  11. The tramp goes into the bathroom, but has to clock out first. He briefly lounges on the sink having a cigarette, but the wall behind him turns out to be TV screen. The boss appears and yells for him to go back to work.
  12. In the boss’s office, a salesman comes in and demonstrates a machine to eliminate the lunch hour: it shoves food into workers mouths automatically while they work.
  13. The line slows to a stop, but again the tramp can’t stop. The secretary bends over and he tightens her dress buttons. He almost sits in the big guy’s soup, but stops himself. But when he tries to hand the soup to him while his hands are still jerking, it spills it all over both of them.
  14. The boss comes along to try the automatic feeding machine on the tramp. It wildly malfunctions and almost kills him by feeding him nuts and bolts. The demonstrators care about the damage to the machine, not him. They try again. It throws a pie in his face.
  15. Later, the line speeds up again. Desperate to keep up, the tramp dives down the assembly line trying to get the bolts he missed, but he gets sucked into the machine and ground up in the gears. They run the gears in reverse to get him out.
  16. When he comes out he’s gone totally crazy, tightening everybody’s noses.
  17. Seeing the secretary’s dress buttons again, he chases her outside where he loosens a fire hydrant, then chases society woman who also has buttons on her outfit.
  18. The society woman gets a cop. The cop chases the tramp back inside...
  19. ...where he steals an oil can and attacks everybody, throwing random levers and wrecking the machinery...

This is our first hero who impresses us not by working harder or suffering in silence (though he is certainly silent), but by being more sensitive and human than the others around him. That doesn’t sound like a hard sell, but it’s very rare: Americans don’t like to see weakness. It’s not a problem at all here, since the Little Tramp is naturally sympathetic, but could this sympathy be replicated without the years of effortless charm that Chaplin had built up? We’ll look for other heroes like this…

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The First 15 Minutes Project #6: Rick Blaine

Okay, so you’ll see that I elevated the four shortcuts to sympathy I catalogued yesterday to our checklist. I’ll add more as I find other recurring themes. Starting today, I’ll also analyze at the bottom of the post what makes each intro unique or daring. Casablanca, for instance, introduces its main character quite late...
Rick Blaine in Casablanca:
  1. Superimposed over a cheesy model of a globe: “With the coming of the 2nd World War, many eyes in imprisoned Europe turned to America. A tortured refugee trail sprung up. Paris to Orsee, Across the Mediterranean to Oran, then by train or auto or foot across the desert to Morrocco. The lucky few get exit visas to the new world. The other wait in Casablanca, and wait, and wait…”
  2. A radio man gets a wire about criminals arriving in Casablanca with stolen letters of transit.
  3. The police chase suspects through the bustling and exotic streets of Casablanca.
  4. A suspect is shot dead in front of a poster of Petain, the leader of Vichy France. They search him and find he has resistance documents.
  5. A posh English tourists get news from a local, who explains that Renault is the corrupt chief of police and warns them to be on guard since the city is filled with the scum of Europe, who are vultures. The Englishman thanks the local, but after he leaves he finds his wallet is gone.
  6. Plane flies overhead, everyone in line for a visa looks up hopefully. A young couple says “Perhaps tomorrow we’ll be on the plane.”
  7. The plane flies over Rick’s bar…
  8. The plane lands at the airport. Nazi Major Strasser gets off, greets Renault (Claude Rains).
  9. Renault assures Strasser that he’ll arrest the man who stole the letters of transit that night. “Tonight he’ll be at Rick’s. Everybody comes to Rick’s.” Strasser says “I’ve heard about this casino, and also Rick himself.”
  10. Cut to Rick’s door at night. Rick’s black entertainer Sam sings “It Had To Be You.”
  11. Inside, people complain about the wait to get in. A merchant pays a former heiress very little for her diamonds. A black marketer arranges for someone to get a boat for a lot of cash. A card player asks a waiter if Rick will have a drink with him, says he was a the second biggest banker in Amsterdam. The waiter replies that the leading banker in Amsterdam is now a pastry chef in their kitchen.
  12. We see Rick’s hands sign a bill, then pan up to show him playing chess by himself.
  13. They ask if a Nazi banker can come in, but Rick shakes his head no. He does agree to let Ugarte (Peter Lorre) in.
  14. Ugarte says it looks like Rick has been doing this his whole life. Rick barks “How do you know I haven’t?” “I assumed…” Rick tells him not to assume. Ugarte asks about the couriers. Rick says they’re lucky, now they’re the “honored dead.” Rick won’t drink with him. “You despise me, don’t you?” “If I gave you any thought, I probably would.” “I help people” “For a price.” “Is that so parasitic?” “ I don’t object to a parasite, just a cut-rate one.” Ugarte says he’s leaving soon with the letters of transit everyone is looking for. “I have many friends in Casablanca, but somehow just because you despise me you’re the only one I trust, could you hold these for me?”
  15. Sam sings “Knock on Wood.” Rick stashes the latter in with Sam’s sheet music.
  16. A rival bar owner named Ferrari (Syndey Greenstreet) offers Rick money for Sam. Sam responds, “I don’t buy or sell human beings.” “Let’s ask Sam, perhaps he’d like to make a change?” “Let’s ask Sam” Sam says no.
  17. A girl asks Rick, “Where were you last night?” “That was so long ago I don’t remember.” “Will I see you tonight?” “I never make plans that far in advance.” “What a fool I was to fall for a man like you.” She’s drunk. He kicks her out.
  18. Renault approaches to talk to Rick. He says that Rick is reckless throwing away women like that. The plane to Lisbon flies overhead. Does Rick want to be on it. He denies it. “I’ve often wondered why you don’t return to America… Did you abscond with the church funds? Sleep with a Senator’s wife? I’d like to think that you killed a man, it’s the romantic in me.” “It’s a combination of all three.” “Why on Earth did you come to Casablanca” “My health, I came for the waters.” “It’s in a desert” “I was misinformed.”
  19. Renault tells him about an arrest there. Rick assures him that that won’t be a problem: “I stick my neck out for nobody.”

This is the first movie we’ve examined where the hero is introduced late, after everybody talks about him with much mystique. This trick can be effective, since it makes us fascinated by the hero before he even appears, but it’s also risky, since we don’t get to have a “point of view” character yet as we get to know this world. Here, it works here very well. Since everybody keeps talking up Rick, we know that he’ll be our hero and we’re willing to withhold our need for identification until he appears. Denied Rick’s point of view, we start the movie very explicitly with a “voice of God/ viewpoint of God” intro. It would be hard to pull this off in a modern movie. We live in a far more subjective era.