Podcast

Monday, December 22, 2014

8 More Satisfying Ways that Serial Could Have Ended

I share the general impression that “Serial” did not stick the landing (though I wouldn’t go as far as some). Was this inevitable? What options did creator Sarah Koenig, have from a narrative-building perspective?

Let’s start with the options that had already lapsed by the time she began production on the final episode:
  • Once she began to suspect that no new game-changing evidence would be discovered, she could have chosen to withhold some of the evidence she did gather until the end, to create more of a feeling of a “big reveal” pay-off. This would have been a big cheat, and probably still unsatisfying, but this is actually what I assumed that she would do: I thought she was hiding an ace up her sleeve. For better or worse, she wasn’t.
  • Barring that, she could have kept the main series focused closer on the evidence, and saved up the more think-piece-style episodes for the end, instead of running those in the middle. One way or another, I think the most basic thing we all wanted and didn’t get from the finale was a break in the format of some kind. Instead, we got a very typical episode, with a smattering of new evidence that could go either way, followed by more thoughts about unknowability. It would have been more satisfying if she had withheld the more-ruminative episode about psychopathy, for example, until the end, as a way to step back and re-examine her narrative.
That said, once the previous 11 episodes had already posted, and she was painted into that corner, I think there were still ways to offer more satisfaction. What options was she left with?
  • We’ll start with another big cheat: She could have delayed the finale until more evidence came in, most obviously the results of the upcoming DNA test. But barring that…
  • The most obvious finale, it seemed to me and to several listeners, would be for Koenig decide for herself, based on everything she’d learned, whether or not Syed was guilty. Obviously, she was loathe to do this, but we sort of deserved it, because she had made so much of the series about her own vacillation.
  • Barring that, she could have at least polled her co-producers to find out their conclusions…Hopefully, two would disagree, and they could have a debate.
But I think one problem was that the specter of Janet Malcolm was looming over Koenig. Malcolm wrote the New-Yorker-article-turned-book “The Journalist and the Murderer”, in which she criticized true crime writer Joe McGinniss for befriending Jeffrey MacDonald, the green beret who chopped up his family, by claiming he would try to free him. Once McGinniss decided MacDonald was actually guilty, he hid this conclusion to maintain access. After McGinniss got his bestseller, Malcolm got her own bestseller by criticizing McGinniss’s ethics.

Koenig tells us that she had assumed that many more exculpatory items would emerge after she uncovered the possible alibi for Syed early on, but none did, and she surely started to suspect that she was digging a dry well, but once she had formed a relationship with Syed, I suspect that she was reluctant to go there, for fear of Malcolm-style criticism

So what options does that leave?
  • She could have fallen back on what “This American Life” has always done best: tell stories. Now that we have all this evidence, tell us one story (or more) that fits the evidence in which Syed didn’t do it, and another in which he did.
But wait, now we’re running into another ethical (and legal) issue. The problem with this is that each alternate narrative would involve accusing Jay of different crimes than the ones he admitted to, either accusing him of doing it himself or or covering up for someone else and then perjuring himself. Defense attorneys are allowed to idly throw suspicion on third parties in court, but journalists aren’t. It’s slander.
  • Okay, so here’s another option: She could have pulled a John Oliver or Stephen Colbert and capitalized on her huge success by reaching out to the new friends of the show (surely she got some emails from some impressive names) and inviting big minds to ruminate on what it all means.
  • Or, finally, she could have ended with Syed himself, and let him say what this has meant to him. 
Syed’s charismatic / enigmatic personality has been the pivot for the whole show, and I would at least ask that the show end on his words. Instead we ended with Koenig saying the words “We don’t know.” Ugh. That’s exactly where we began. Please let somebody, somewhere, reach some sort of conclusion about this whole inquiry, even if it’s just the man himself.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

New Podcast!

Hi guys, long time no see.  New content still isn’t ready, but I guest-hosted once again on The Narrative Breakdown with James Monohan and Cheryl Klein.  This time we’re discussing unreliable narrators in film and prose. Alas, I sound a little frazzled in this one (It was the end of a long day!) but James and Cheryl carry my weight ably, so it’s well-worth a listen!

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Straying From the Party Line: Saying What They Wouldn't Say in Do the Right Thing

One last look at Do the Right Thing
So I’ve had a lot of praise for Do the Right Thing, both for the rules it exemplifies and the rules it breaks, but before I move on I should point out the one record-scratch moment that always stops the movie dead for me, if only for a second.

As I said last time, I have no problem whatsoever with the “unrealistic” racism montage, which clearly takes place in those characters’ heads, but we transition into that scene from a seemingly objective scene between Mookie and Pino that always annoys me because it breaks a rule that it shouldn’t break (and doesn’t need to break.)

After getting called a nigger one too many times by Pino, Mookie calls him aside for a talk. Right there, it feels a little phony that Pino would agree to this talk, but I’ll go along with it. The bigger problem is in the dialogue:
  • Mookie: Can I talk to you for a second?
  • Pino: What?
  • Mookie: Pino, Who’s your favorite basketball player?
  • Pino: Magic Johnson.
  • Mookie: Who’s your favorite movie star?
  • Pino: Eddie Murphy.
  • Mookie: Who’s your favorite rock star?
  • [Pino hesitates]
  • Mookie: Prince. You’re a Prince freak.
  • Pino: Boss. Bruce.
  • Mookie: Prince.
  • Pino: Bruuucce.
  • Mookie: Pino, all you talk about is nigger this and nigger that and your favorite people are so-called niggers.
  • Pino: It’s different. Magic, Eddie, Prince, they’re not niggers. I mean, they’re not black. I mean ... let me explain myself. They’re not really black. I mean, they’re black, but they’re not *really* black. They’re more than black. It's different.
This strikes me as totally phony. Yes, Lee eventually lets Pino try to back out of the trap by substituting Springsteen, but he never would have blundered that far in. Tricks and traps are great, but they can’t be this obvious. We’re always on the look-out and avoiding them, jumping in with versions of “I see where you’re going with this...”

I talked last time about Lee’s published journal of the writing of the movie, and the brilliant tricks he uses to transfer that feeling of stream-of-consciousness brainstorming to the screen, but this can also be a problem, as this scene makes clear. Sure enough, in the journal, you can see him arrive at the idea for this scene and jot it down in real time, but in this case, the idea became overly didactic onscreen. Lee-as-writer is dumbing-down the character of Pino in order to make the point he wants to make.
Lee surely ignored the character of Pino when he said to his creator “I wouldn’t say this.” Of course, actor Jon Turturro also could have made the same protestation to Lee, and Lee probably would have listened: both the book and the DVD fearutes make it clear that Aiello kept standing up for his character Sal and asking for dialogue tweaks, some of which Lee conceded and some he didn’t, and they both agreed that the final movie benefited as a result . But Aiello was a veteran actor and Turturro was just starting out, so he was less likely to push back, and this scene suffered as a result, allowing Pino to become a straw man.

That’s frustrating, because this scene could have vastly improved by a small tweak. Here’s my humble rewrite:
  • Mookie: Hey Pino, Who's your favorite basketball player?
  • Pino hesitates before answering, suspecting a trap, but Mookie pounces on the hesitation
  • Mookie: I’ll tell you: Magic Johnson. Who’s your favorite movie star? Eddie Murphy. Who’s your favorite rock star? Prince.
  • Pino (jumps in, unconvincingly): No, Bruce! Bruuucce.
  • Mookie (scoffs): All you talk about is nigger this and nigger that and your favorite people are so-called niggers.
  • Pino: Fuck that.  They’re not niggers.  You can tell just by looking at them.
  • Mookie laughs in genuine amusement.
Mookie’s point is made (and Lee’s), and Pino is impeached, but he doesn’t collapse like a house of straw in order to make that happen: He goes down swinging.

Just let each character make his own point, rather than tricking some other character into making it for him. That’s one trap that never really works off-screen, so it shouldn’t work onscreen either.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Rulebook Casefile: The Tricky Tone of Do the Right Thing

So we’ve talked about the omniscient POV in Do the Right Thing, wherein the camera keeps jumping away from Mookie to give us a more ominous view of the block’s events that he can’t see. But this movie maintains a very tricky mix of objective and subjective points of view. On the one hand, it intentionally denies us the ability to deeply bond with any one character’s POV, but on the other hand, it literally allows us to step into the POV of several characters in a way that almost no other movie does.

If this movie occasionally has “camera-as-hero”, it also has “hero-as-camera.” I’ve already linked to this excellent post about the movie from Matthew Dessem at “The Criterion Contraption”, but let me borrow his nice demonstration of this effect:




So the camera is pivoting our POV until we literally step into Buggin’s head-space. Indeed, this movie is all about head-space. As Dessem goes on to explain, this retraining of our eye prepares us for the remarkable montage in the middle where a series of block residents abruptly hurl racial epithets at us. Are these residents really saying these things out loud? Have they ever said these things out loud? Probably not. We’re just leaping into the unrestrained id that’s simmering inside their heads.

Ultimately, this movie takes place in Spike Lee’s head-space: it’s his impressionistic collage of thoughts about New York in the summer, and at times it feels more like a journal than a story: it’s not just the laundry lists of epithets, it’s the long roll-call of R&B acts, the montages of various ways of dealing with the heat, etc. Indeed, Lee did keep a free-ranging journal as he carried the movie from conception to debut, then published it as a book, and it’s great reading.

Needless to say, the stream-of-consciousness tone he creates is hard to pull off, but Lee succeeds by using brilliant tricks like the one above that whip us back and forth between objectivity and subjectivity. That’s one reason I compared this before to avant-garde docs like Man with a Movie Camera and Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. We’re not always jumping from plot-point to plot-point, we’re sometimes just jumping from thought to thought.

So for screenwriters, I have bad news: this movie’s unique tone is sold to the audience using tricks that are only available to writer-directors, and would be hard to sell on the page if someone else was directing. This movie is visionary in a literal sense: Lee is using brilliant camera innovations to literally pivot us into the head of each character until their vision briefly becomes our own ...Hey, I think I just I just figured out why he says “A Spike Lee Joint”!

One last post on this movie coming up next week...

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Let Your Characters Re-Label Themselves

Let’s start by showing another post from the always-wonderful Humans of New York:
The takeaway is this: people like to re-label themselves. You see your characters as types, but they see themselves as individuals. This can especially be a problem in a movie like Do the Right Thing, which is all about types, as in “these are the types of people you see on an average New York street on an average summer day.” That’s a fine way to write. It’s okay for you to see them as types, as long as you allow them to reject those labels in the dialogue.

On the excellent Criterion Collection DVD, there’s lots of video of writer/director Spike Lee’s extensive rehearsal/workshop process and you can see him adjust the script to address the concerns of the actors, who were all invited to personalize their roles.

These leads to a wonderfully ironic moment, when Lee is rehearsing the first boycott scene with actors Danny Aiello (Sal) and Giancarlo Esposito (Buggin’ Out). Lee notices that, instead of saying “Only Italian-Americans on the wall”, Aiello has changed it to “Only American-Italians on the wall.” Spike instantly sees that this is better, and points out to Esposito that his mocking response should also change to mirror Aiello: “Well, I don’t seen any ‘American-Italians’ eating here!”

As Esposito is making the change in his script, Aiello explains that that’s the way he says it, because he visited Italy and decided that he was more proud of being American than Italian. At this point, Esposito gingerly points out that he himself is in fact, unlike Aiello, Italian-born. Aiello is of course totally embarrassed, but Esposito chuckles and says it’s no big deal.

Let your characters re-label themselves. Let them describe themselves in unique ways, so that their language will come alive. Let almost everything they say be specific to them and their particular worldview. Give them a chance to punch through the boxes you put them in.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Rulebook Casefile: Ironic Sequence of Events in Do the Right Thing

So we’ve established that Do the Right Thing has a very unique structure: Like most stories, it is about a large problem, but instead of watching a hero solve that problem, we’re watching the crisis slowly build, spotting a progression of factors that no one character can see.

Even so, only on subsequent viewings do we realize that almost every scene has contributed to the final crisis, often in very ironic ways.  Here, as I see it, are all the contributing factors, and where they come in the timeline:

  1. 9:50 The heat (which causes Sal to say “I’m going to kill someone today” at the beginning)
  2. 18:43 Buggin’ Out clearly has a history of free-floating agitation (see his nickname)
  3. 18:43 Buggin’ Out feels that Sal has been cheap with the amount of cheese on his pizza.  Sal doesn’t give an inch.
  4. 18:43 Sal contemptuously dismisses Buggin’s request to put African American pictures on the wall.
  5. 18:43 Sal has a bat under the counter and in the Wall of Fame scene we see that he’s quick to take it out.
  6. 21:43 Buggin’ tells Mookie to “Stay black.”
  7. 23:00 Da Mayor tells Mookie to “Do the right thing,” which seems to gnaw at him throughout the movie.
  8. 26:27 After turning off the fire hydrant (and seeing that the locals have humiliated an Italian-American driver) the Italian-American cop says he’ll bust heads if he has to come back.
  9. 33:20 We see in Raheem’s boombox duel with the Puerto Ricans that being forced to turn down your radio is a defeat, a personal humiliation, a threat to manhood
  10. 35:05 Buggin’ has his white Air Jordans run over by a white bicyclist, who bought a brownstone on the block.  And the guy is wearing a Larry Bird jersey (Lee hints in the commentary that the characters would have taken this jersey as a brazen display of white pride). 
  11. 39:19 Cops glare hatefully at the cornermen, who glare hatefully back.
  12. 39:19 The cornermen are increasingly angry that all of the businesses are owned by non-blacks.
  13. 51:35 Raheem gives Mookie his personal philosophy of love and hate, ending with “If I love you, I love you, but if I hate you…”
  14. 53:32 Sal doesn’t say please when he asks Raheem to turn down his radio the first time.
  15. 59:20 Pino yells at Smiley (just after Sal tells Pino that he won’t move) and the neighborhood overhears and heckles back. 
  16. 103:45 Everybody mocks Buggin’s attempts to recruit them, so he starts to calm down, and just starts to clean his Jordans, but Mookie says that his Jordons are dogged, causing Buggin’ to get angry all over again.
  17. 115:19 Mookie doesn’t like Sal’s friendship with Jade. 
  18. 127:30 Smiley is a mentally challenged person walking around unsupervised, and unlike most challenged people in movies, he isn’t serene all the time, so he’s agitating everyone. 
  19. 127:30 Buggin’ Out happens to run into Radio Raheem and their free-floating animostities combine on a semi-randomly selected target.  Then Smiley adds his anger to theirs.
  20. 129:08 Ahmad, Ella, Punchy and Cee convince Sal to re-open the pizzeria after it’s closed.
  21. 130:00 When Raheem, Buggin’, and Smiley show up to demand pictures on the wall, Sal doesn’t just yell about Raheem’s music, he calls it “jungle music.”  Obviously, this is followed by the big one, where Sal smashes Raheem’s radio with his bat.
  22. 133:46 When the resulting fight spills onto the sidewalk, a kid yells “Fight!”  and everybody comes running.
  23. 140:00 The crowd reveals that they are angry over previous police murders (the characters shout out the names of real-life police victims Eleanor Bumpers, Michael Stewart, et al.)
So that’s almost everything right?  Even the seemingly happy moments, like the fire hydrant scene, ironically contribute the final tragedy.  But in fact there’s another, much smaller list of elements that don’t contribute to the crisis:

  1. Everything with Senor Love Daddy, who is the ultimate in chill.
  2. Vito’s friendliness with Mookie doesn’t contribute one way or another.
  3. The anger of the teens at Da Mayor.
  4. The scene where Raheem’s batteries die and he gets more from the Korean grocers.
  5. Da Mayor rescues the kid from getting hit by an ice cream truck leads to peace between Da Mayor and Mother Sister.
  6. Everything with Tina and Hector (Mookie’s child) including the sex scene.
It’s crucial that these moments are included.  Unlike most stories, which assure us that we are following the linear progression of one problem, so that every scene “counts”, this sort of story must do the opposite: if we suspect that every element of this story is part on clockwork machine, the movie would feel grim and preachy: “Behold The Folly of Man!”

By interspersing the 23 elements that contribute with 6 that don’t, Lee keeps our eye off the ball, allowing us to just relax and enjoy this vibrant world, without having to feel that we’re riding a fixed escalator of racial tension.  We sense that something bad is coming, but we don’t know how or where it will arrive.  In fact, we cling to our hope that moderating influences like Da Mayor or Vito will ensure that things can’t get too bed.  This way, when everything finally goes to hell, it feels much more tragic that it would have Lee had merely set us up in order to knock us down. 


In the end, many elements contribute ironically, some elements contribute directly, and a few elements contribute not at all. That’s the most powerful way to tell this story, because that’s the way the world works.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

I, Too, Have Thoughts About Serial...

Some have requested that I share my thoughts on “Serial”, the smash-hit podcast that re-examines the conviction of a man named Adnan Syed for the murder of his ex-girlfriend when they were high school seniors, 15 years ago.  Well soon back to Do the Right Thing (which is now tragically timely)...
I’m obsessed with true-crime stories in general and false-conviction stories in particular, devouring every detail in cases such as the recent exoneration of Ricky Jackson. As a result, I’ve become convinced that false-convictions are far more common than most people think, and there are probably tens of thousands of wrongly-convicted people in America’s prisons, especially dark-skinned men.

That said, I’ve now listened to every second of “Serial”, and I’ve never seriously doubted for even one of those seconds that Adnan Syed is guilty.

Here’s the thing: This series is clearly not aimed at a typical true-crime audience, and it seems to me that its success is somewhat predicated on that unfamiliarity. The production values and philosophical tone peg this as true-crime for listeners who thought they were too sophisticated for true crime, which gives the show a fresh perspective and makes it a good listening experience, but also gives it license to be frustratingly naive. Koenig is a veteran reporter, and I’ve been a fan of her work for a long time, but it’s a little odd that she herself adopts such a credulous persona here. On one level, this is a smart narrative choice that makes her into a compelling hero, but it can lead to some eye-rolling.

The problem is that many of the supposedly exculpatory aspects that Koenig dwells upon would be seen as non-issues for an audience familiar with this sort of case. Here are four big ones:
  • #1: She keeps focusing on the fact that, while Syed had some motivation, he didn’t have enough. Wouldn’t he have just shrugged off the break-up?
...But who has a good motivation to kill an 18 year old honors student? Nobody. There’s no good reason to do it. But it keeps happening. Most not-for-profit murders don’t make good sense to anyone but the murderer. We have her diary saying that she doesn’t know why he can’t just get over the break-up. That’s more proof-of-motive than you usually find in such cases.
  • #2: She focuses on the fact that there are dozens of discrepancies in the various accounts, and the main witness’s story changes somewhat each he tells it.
...But this is always true. There has never once been a murder case without baffling discrepancies and inconsistencies in honest testimony. The only time this doesn’t happen is when everybody “gets their story straight” beforehand. What we call “memories” are a crude compromise between our actual sensory input at the time and the shifting self-narratives we craft in our heads. This whole series shows why it’s almost impossible to convict a millionaire (like O.J. or Robert Blake) of a crime, no matter how obvious their guilt is: because any case, even if it’s “open and shut”, starts to seem improbable if you have enough time and enough money to pick apart every inconsistency.
  • #3: She focuses on the fact that Syed is a nice, charming guy on the phone.
...Again, this is very common. Have you noticed that pre-recorded messages that keeps reminding her that she’s talking to an inmate? There’s a reason for that. Many, many prisoners are nice and charming, and you have to keep reminding yourself who you’re talking to. If he’s guilty of doing what Jay says he did (killing with several days’ premeditation), it would be weird if he didn’t have that affect: Listening to him talk, he sounds as if he could be a innocent, affable guy or, just as likely, he could be a charming psychopath. They’re hard to tell apart. Psychopaths, because they have no core self, are very good at becoming the charming person who you want them to be.
  • #4 She focuses on the fact that there’s little physical evidence.
...This is also very common. For the most part, cases with physical evidence don’t go to trial. If you’re nailed, then you’re nailed. If there’s a trial, it’s almost always a “he said / he said” case like this. This is why it sucks to be a prosecutor, defense attorney, or juror. The overwhelming pressure to make a plea deal creates a situation in which every jury decision is a pure judgment call. To a certain extent, Koenig is falling prey to the “CSI effect”: she shouldn’t be so surprised that there’s no smoking gun evidence introduced at trial.
On one level, I shouldn’t be surprised at all by the popularity of the show: it combines the excellent radio journalism of “This American Life” with the compulsive thrills of the true-crime genre. But I still find it a little odd, for a few reasons:

I always listen to “This American Life”, and the pilot for this show ran as a regular episode of that show, so I listened to it at the time, and enjoyed it, but I decided at the time not to make the jump over to the Serial podcast, because it seemed as there wasn’t going to be enough meat to the story. After all, Koenig had already made clear from the outset that no new big piece of exculpatory or condemnatory evidence would come out, and no new trial would be triggered, so it sounded like the whole 12 hours would be circling over the same ground already covered by the pilot. Now that I’ve gone back and listened to the whole thing, I find that it is well worth listening to, but my original opinion hasn’t changed. This isn’t really a “serial” in that it has no cliff-hangers and really no plot progression, just an ever closer-examination of the same evidence.

In addition to the lack of “Ah-ha” or “Gotcha” moment, there are other reasons that, of all the true crime stories out there, this one doesn’t seem like a particularly good candidate for a 12-part series:
  • Too many trial participants refused to be recorded (the detectives, the prosecution, the key witness, etc) or died (the defense attorney), so we’re still getting a very incomplete picture, even after all this investment.
  • Of the people who are on tape, there’s a distinct lack of “real characters”. Simply put, nobody is “giving good tape”. There are no weirdos or slicksters or dim-bulbs or tough guys that might make you say “Wow, I could just listen to this guy talk forever.” The case is just kind of dreary. There’s not a lot of personality here.
  • There’s no outrage factor. There are so many hundreds of “Innocence Project” cases with outrageous abuses by the cops or prosecution and/or infuriating incompetence by the defense. There’s not really any of that here, from what we’ve heard so far. This is just a very typical case, no matter how life-shattering it was for the victim and the accused. There’s some value in re-examining a more typical court conviction but 12 hours is pushing it, especially when there are so many more fascinating and/or infuriating cases out there.
The most baffling thing is that this show has proven to be more popular than “This American Life” itself, which has been producing superlative downloads every week for almost twenty years, including many, many true crime stories even more compelling than this one. If you discovered this show independent of TAL, then do yourself a big favor and dive into the TAL archives. They do a lot of stuff other than true-crime, but here are ten of their best true-crime episodes that you can start out with:
  1. #210: “Perfect Evidence”, on DNA exonerations and false confessions.
  2. #356: “The Prosecutor”
  3. #385: “Pro Se”
  4. #387: “Arms Trader” (This is a good example of an crime episode with just as much ambiguity but lots of huge plot twists, wild personalities, and the cheerful participation of the both the defense and the prosecution, led by a merciless young go-getter named Christopher Christie)
  5. #405: “Inside Job”
  6. #414: “Right to Remain Silent” (with amazing secret recordings by a whistleblower cop)
  7. #419: “Petty Tyrant”
  8. #487 and 488: “Harper High School”, Parts one and two
  9. #507: “Confessions”
  10. #536 “The Secret Recordings of Carmen Segarra”
Anyway, that’s my two cents. Feel free to let me know in the comments if I come across as merciless as Chris Christie...

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Straying from the Party Line: Do the Right Thing's Omniscient POV

So we’ve established that, unlike most movies, Do the Right Thing has a passive protagonist and it’s not about the solving of a large problem. This movie isn’t about a crisis that necessitates a series of tough decisions, it’s about a series of lightly-taken decisions that unexpectedly culminate in a crisis.

This brings us to another unusual thing about this movie: Many elements are not introduced from the POV of the hero.

If you think about it, this is kind of odd: Sure, there’s a huge cast, but it’s all limited to one block, and Mookie is constantly on the move and friendly with every character, so wouldn’t it make sense to simply introduce each new element in the movie from his POV? This is the way things are done in everything from “The Sopranos” to “Harry Potter”, after all. But instead, the camera chooses not to favor Mookie, jumping ahead of him or away from him several times, and introducing new elements on their own.

At first I found this very odd, but I think it makes sense: we have to cut away from Mookie’s POV so that we can see what he can’t see. After all, if he saw all of the same foreshadowing that we see, we would get too frustrated with him for not seeing the disaster coming. Ironically, this is one case in which we must sever our POV in order to maintain our empathy, because this assures us that Mookie couldn’t have predicted what we can predict, given our more-omniscient POV.

To a certain extent, the “antagonist” is merely the heavy hand of fate creating a tragedy that nobody wants, and the “protagonist” is not Mookie but the omniscient camera itself. Only the camera sees what no one person in the neighborhood can see: all of the little slights and frustrations that build up.

When we come back to this movie, we’ll take a closer look at that ironic sequence of events, but first, by request, I start off next week with my thoughts on the hit podcast Serial...

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Straying from the Party Line: Do the Right Thing's Passive Protagonist That’s Not Solving a Large Problem!

Warning: This gets long!

So finally we’ve captured that elusive beast: a great movie with a passive protagonist. In face, we have sometime even more rare: a great movie that’s not about the solving of a large problem!

Let’s start with our hapless hero Mookie, and all the ways he deviates from our list:
  • He’s not especially resourceful.
  • He has a lot more flaws than strengths.
  • He doesn’t make a lot of difficult decisions.
There is indeed a moment in just about the right spot where Mookie takes responsibility for a problem: 18 minutes in, he quickly shuts down Buggin’ Out’s first calls for a boycott, ushers him out, lectures him, and then Mookie comes back in and promises Sal that he’ll keep Buggin’ Out away from the pizza place.

So that sounds about right, and indeed this problem will get larger and larger, but Mookie himself will not do much of anything to solve that problem until it suddenly gets out of hand, more than an hour of screentime later.

(There is one scene about halfway through in which Mookie mildly repeats his advice to Buggin’ Out, but he actually makes the problem worse, because he also confirms Buggin’s worst fear by noticing that Buggin’s “Jordans are dogged”. He doesn’t suspect that the ruining of Buggin’s Air Jordans by a white homeowner on the block is by this point the real source of Buggin’s mounting anger.)

Meanwhile, Mookie skips most of the steps that we expect to see a hero go through:
  • His offhand commitment to solving this problem doesn’t lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person.
  • He doesn’t grapple with a lot of tough moral dilemmas.
  • He has no lowest point or midpoint disaster.
  • He doesn’t turn proactive until the height of the climax, when he acts suddenly, belatedly, and rashly.
So does the movie get away with all of this? Absolutely! Let’s break it down...

First of all, why doesn’t Mookie’s passivity infuriate us?
  • Like Jake Gittes back when he walked a beat in Chinatown, Mookie is in a position where it seems (at first) like the “right thing” to do is to do as little as possible. Shut down Buggin’ Out, shut down Pino, humor Smiley, compliment Raheem on his rings. We don’t get frustrated with him because it seems like he is indeed “doing the right thing” and successfully keeping the peace (You could say that the one time Mookie breaks his commitment to mildness is when he gets angry at Sal about being nice to Jade, and it is perhaps this violation of his code that karmically brings about the crisis.)
  • We can tell that a problem is brewing, and we sense that we can’t trust Mookie to resolve it, but that makes the movie more exciting. This isn’t a movie about the solving of a big problem, it’s about the gradual combustion of a suppressed problem. 
But this still leaves the question: why do we put up with it? There’s a good reasons why most stories are about active protagonists solving large problems: Because that’s how we’re primed to watch stories. Our first instinct is to invest our identification in one character, caring only about that character, and only caring about the story to the extent that we care about the character. This is the easiest way to tell a story and the easiest way to read or watch a story.

This movie asks a lot more of us. It asks us to jump around, and never plant ourselves too firmly in any one character’s shoes. This makes it harder to care, but Lee and his collaborators know how to compensate for this lack of a comfort zone:
  • It’s just really funny. The dialogue is funny. The performances are funny. The vibe is funny.
  • The editing style is bracing and invigorating. It’s bouncy. It’s brash.
  • It’s absolutely gorgeous to watch. Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson’s number one influence was Jack Cardiff, who shot Michael Powell’s movies, such as Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, and he successfully recreate the eye-popping use of impressionistic and vibrant color.
So why doesn’t it deflate the movie that nobody is trying to solve anything? I would say that we are somewhat aware as we watch that our narrative expectations are being frustrated, but we go along with it simply because we trust the filmmakers. Every aspect of the filmmaking is so good that we know we’re in safe hands, and we give the movie a reluctant benefit of the doubt until everything finally coalesces in a very satisfying way at the climax.

Next time, one more big deviation…

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Rulebook Casefile: The Hero Has to Fundamentally Change the Story

Still not completely better, believe it or not, but lets finally dig into this movie a bit.
When you’re writing a story about a fiasco, then the first instinct is to have the hero rise above the situation and wisely shake his head at the folly on display. After all, he’s a hero, and heroes are smarter and better, right?

There is no better example of this than Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Everybody is hot to get the skulls except for Indy, who gets dragged along reluctantly and keeps scoffing at how silly the whole quest is. In the end, Indy wins the race to find the skulls, reiterates that he doesn’t really care, and half-heartedly enters the cave anyway.
But this is completely wrong. The hero must drive the story, even if that makes the hero “look bad”. 

When Do the Right Thing came out, many movie critics claimed that it was morally irresponsible of Spike Lee to have his “hero” throw a trashcan through Sal’s window, rather than try to bring everybody back into harmony. Certain members of Lee’s audience, they argued, needed to be shown a demonstration of moral rectitude, or else they might swarm out into the streets after every screening, smashing every window they saw!

But, over and above the overt and covert racism of the critics, that would have made for a terrible movie. Audiences have no patience for heroes who stay above the fray. No matter what’s going down, we want our “heroes” to be in it up to their necks: When there’s greed, they should be the greediest. When there’s anger, they should be the angriest. When there’s folly, they should make the biggest fools of themselves.

In the riot, Mookie finally proves himself to be the “hero” of the story, not (necessarily) because his act was the right thing to do, but because it finally made him the fulcrum of the story: this day finally becomes his story, defined by his action, and his flaw and/or strength, depending on how you read it. Is he “the only one who could solve the problem”? Not really, but he’s the only person with a foot in both worlds, and therefore he decides that it’s his duty to tip the situation decisively in one direction.

Lee’s most daring move, in fact, was not his hero’s climactic action, but all of Mookie’s laid back actions before that. We’ll look at that next time…

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Ultimate Story Checklist: Do the Right Thing

Self-centered pizza delivery man Mookie works at the only white business in his neighborhood, Sal’s Pizzeria, which Sal runs with his sons Pino and Vito. Mookie lives with his sister Jade, who bugs him to be a better employee and be more responsible to his baby Hector and Hector’s mother Tina. Other denizens of the block include smooth DJ Senor Love Daddy, old bum Da Mayor, wise advice giver Mother Sister, mentally challenged Smiley, angry young man Buggin’ Out, and angrier young man Radio Raheem. Buggin’ Out tries to organize a boycott of Sal’s because Sal only has pictures of Italian-Americans on the wall, and Smiley and Raheem eventually join him, bringing racial tensions to a boil. Radio Raheem chokes Sal and then gets killed by the police, sparking a riot in which Mookie contributes to the destruction of the Pizzeria.
PART #1: CONCEPT 17/21
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
 Not especially : “A conflicted black pizza delivery man working for the only white business on his block must decide what to do when a race riot breaks out.” This movie was sold on the success of the writer /director /star’s previous two movies, which were more broadly comedic.  He cashed in that goodwill here with a more ambitious movie.
Is this a new twist on a classic type of story?
 Sort of: The day-in-the-life-of-a-city genre had died out fifty years earilier, but this revived it with a new perspective.
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
 A comedy about a race riot.
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
 Yes, everyday city tensions culminate in a death and a riot. 
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
 Very much so.  There’s almost no plot.
Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
 Mookie, for lack of a better one, but he’s relatively passive and we’re never sure if he’s a hero or an anti-hero.  It’s interesting that Mookie is sometimes the POV character and sometimes not.  Sometimes he leads us to the next character and sometimes the camera jumps away from him independently.  It’s almost as if the camera is the hero, sometimes agreeing with Mookie and cutting along with his perspective, sometimes cutting in opposition to his POV to things that impeach what he just said, or impeach what he’s about to say. (The case can also be made that Buggin’ Out is a co-hero or co-anti-hero, because he’s the one who is actually driving the plot and Mookie is just reacting.)
Is the story about the hero’s problem, not the hero’s life? 
 Yes and no.  We think for the most of the movie that this is just a day-in-the-life story, but we realize at the end that almost everything we’ve seen has contributed to the riot.
Is it about a unique relationship?
 Yes, a pizza delivery man and his boss.
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
 The hero is doing very little, but yes, Pino opposes him.
Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
 Greatest fear and ironic answer to his question: The mayor says, “Do the right thing” and Mookie responds, “That’s it?” It turns out to be a tough question.
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
 Very much so, he surprises himself and us when he throws the garbage can through the window. 
Does this challenge become something that is the not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?
 Very much so.  He was told that there will always be a place for him there just before the riot.
Is the hero the person working the hardest to solve the problem?
 Yes and no.  Nobody is working to solve the problem, but Mookie turns the tide, for good or ill.
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
 No, but he attempts to, in his own way.
Does the hero permanently transform the situation?
 Yes, he destroys the Pizzeria, banishing the whites from the neighborhood.
Does the situation permanently transform the hero?
 It’s hard to tell.  It doesn’t seem so on the surface, but we suspect it has.  He spends the night with Tina and Hector, which seems like a bit of a personal breakthrough.
The Hook: Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
 The street chalk, the radio station, the direct address framing, etc.
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
 The racial slur montage, the riot, etc.
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
 Just the climax.
Is the story marketable without revealing the surprise?
 Yes.
Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
 Yes.
PART #2: CHARACTER 20/23
Believe: Do we recognize the hero as a human being?
Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or kind, or oddball, or out-of-character, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)
 Goofy: “Don’t ya love your brother Mookie anymore?  I loves ya Jade.” Then bold: Yells “Hell no!” to the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Is the hero defined by actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
 Entirely.  We never learn any backstory, other than what we can infer.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
 The easy-going pizza delivery man, the bridge between the blacks and whites.
Does that ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
 Simmering rage and irreconcilable contradictions.
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
 For lack of a better word: Jive: “Don’t start no shit, won’t be no shit.” “He’s gonna be beating you like an egg for the rest of your life.” “No, you the man.” “Vito is down.”
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
 Sullen
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
 Ignores your protests, then repeats what he said in the first place.
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, not-selfless, and revealed early on?
 He tries to bridge the communities not because he’s a good guy, but because he wants $250 a week plus tips.
Care: Do we feel for the hero?
Does the hero start out with a false philosophy (or accept a false piece of advice early on)?
 “Gotta get paid”
Does the hero have a false or short-sighted goal when we first meet him or her?
 “Gotta get paid.”
Does the hero have an open anxiety about his or her future?
 He wants to keep the peace to keep his job.
Does the hero also have a hidden, private fear?
 Buggin’ Out tells him to “stay black”, and he worries that he’s not doing that.
Is the hero vulnerable, both physically and emotionally?
 Not much, in either case.  He’s serenely confident in his ability to avoid physical danger (he’s the only one who doesn’t flinch at Radio Raheem, and chills him out instantly), and he’s got emotional armor on.
Does the hero have an untenable great flaw that we empathize with? (but…)
 Shiftless (takes forever on his deliveries, avoids his son and his son’s mother unless he wants sex)
Invest: Can we trust the hero to tackle this challenge?
…Is that great flaw the natural flip-side of a great strength that we admire?
 Funny, empathetic to everyone, laid-back, a good lover.
Is the hero curious?
 By implication, because he knows everyone in the neighborhood and cares about their business.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
 His resourcefulness never really gets tested, because he never accepts a large challenge.  Like Jake when he walked a beat in Chinatown, he’s doing as little as possible.
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
 Gotta get paid, don’t mess up my business, don’t put up with mistreatment
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
 No one else is willing to bridge the two worlds.
…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
 Yes, he stands up to both Pino and Buggin’ Out, trying to chill them both out.
Is the hero actively pursuing an early goal when we first meet him or her?
 He’s counting his money.
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
 Sort of. Despite being on the job, he still considers his time his own “My name ain’t Kunta Kinte.” He does his own business on his epic delivery trips.  He’s really his own boss.
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
 Not really.  He’s not solving a lot of problems.
PART #3: STRUCTURE (IF THE STORY IS ABOUT THE SOLVING OF A LARGE PROBLEM) 18/24
1st Quarter: Is the challenge laid out in the first quarter?
When the story begins, is the hero becoming increasingly irritated about his or her longstanding social problem (while still in denial about an internal flaw)?
 Yes, he’s sick of his sister’s nagging, sick of Pino shifting his own responsibilities onto him.  (And he’s in denial about his shiftlessness and suppressed rage)
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
 His sister heckles him on the way out the door, then he’s ordered to sweep up even though that’s not his job.  Not long later, Tina calls.
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
 No. He thinks the only solution to his sister and Tina’s nagging (and Smiley’s for that matter) is just to keep at his job and get paid.   He does not realize until the end that this solution is untenable.  The closest thing he gets to an intimidating opportunity is when Da Mayor says “Always to the right thing.” But Mookie doesn’t know what that means, so he feels that he gets no opportunities to rise above his situation. 
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
 Nothing but, for most of the movie.
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
 When Buggin’ Out announces his boycott, Mookie promises Sal that he’ll shut it down, which is his interpretation of “Do the right thing” at this point. 
2nd Quarter: Does the hero try the easy way in the second quarter?
Does the hero’s pursuit of the opportunity quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
 It’s nor really unforeseen. Buggin’ Out continues his boycott attempts despite Mookie, and Pino’s racism is also escalating.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
 He assumes that he’s shut down Buggin’ Out and he can go on about his day.  He encourages Vito to stand up to Pino instead of confronting Pino directly.
Does the hero (and/or villain) get to have a little fun at this point, in a way that exemplifies the appeal of the concept?
 Yes, he has fun with Vito, Senor Love Daddy, etc.
Does the hero get excited about the possibility of success?
 Yes, he starts to anticipate the money, and promises to buy a picture from Smiley at the end of the day when he gets paid, etc.
Does this culminate in a midpoint disaster?
 There are two, but Mookie misses both, because he’s in the shower (This is an odd structure!)  In Buggin’ Out’s arc, he reaches a lowest point in the montage where everybody contemptuously refuses to join his boycott, then he takes it to Sal by himself and only humiliates himself.  Sal then has a midpoint disaster of his own when Pino sits him down and says he doesn’t to inherit the business, then yells at Smiley in the street, in view of everyone while Sal shakes his head in misery.  This is probably the key moment that leads to the riot (though it was improved and wasn’t in the script!)
3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
Does the hero lose a safe space and/or sheltering relationship at this point?
 Jade comes to the pizzeria and drives a wedge between Mookie and Sal.
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
 Somewhat.  He actually visits his son and Tina, he confronts Pino more directly, etc.
By halfway through, are character decisions driving the plot, rather than external plot complications?
 Yes.
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
 When Sal spits racist invective at Radio Raheem, Mookie decides that Sal is unacceptably racist after all, and the chasm cannot be crossed. 
Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
 Very much so. 
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
 The killing of his friend and the riot teaches him that his attempts to ease tensions were foolish. 
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
 Yes, something in him snaps.
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
 We can sense that the mayor’s words are now echoing in his head: Always do the right thing.
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
 Not really: he acts rashly, then reverts into paralysis.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
 He waits too long.
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
 He is forced to improvise, yes, but neither side ever has a timeline.
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
 Very much so.
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
 The same time.
Is there an epilogue/ aftermath/ denouement in which the challenge is finally resolved (or succumbed to), and we see how much the hero has changed (possibly through reversible behavior)
 Yes.  He talks to Sal the next morning.
PART #4: SCENEWORK 19/23 (Buggin’ Out notices that there are no brothers on the wall of the pizzeria and decides to organize a boycott.)
The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
Were tense and/or hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction established beforehand?
 No.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
 Yes, it begins at the moment that Buggin’ Out takes offense at the amount of cheese on his slice.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
 It is now.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
 Sal doesn’t expect to or want to converse, he just expects Buggin’ Out to pay and go away.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
 Who is the little girl that Mookie is talking to?  Smiley is outside.  We can hear snippets of unrelated conversations.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
 How much trouble will Buggin’ Out cause in the time it takes him to eat his slice?  Once Sal comes out with the bat, it’s clear that Mookie and Vito and Pino have to get Buggin out of there before violence breaks out.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character?
 Yes.
Are one or more characters in the scene emotionally affected by this interaction or action as the scene progresses?
 Yes. Sal and Buggin’ Out both lose it.  Pino and Mookie are also affected.  There’s also a great little moment between Pino and Sal when Pino silently takes Sal’s bat away.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
 As with almost every scene in the movie, our sympathies are totally split.  We basically side with Sal (as Mookie does, at this point) but Buggin’ Out makes a pretty good case.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
 It starts out as a clash of personalities and then becomes a clash of agendas.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
 Surface: get free extra cheese, then put brothers on the wall.  Suppressed: what are you doing in my neighborhood?  Why don’t we own our own stores?
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
 Sal willfully confusing the meaning on “brothers” has subtext to it.  The pictures themselves carry a subtext.  The ownership issues is in the subtext until Sal calls it out. 
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
 Mookie, as always, keeps his feelings on this issue hidden and/or suppressed.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
 Yes.  When Buggin’ asks “How much?”, he’s implying that this isn’t worth $1.50.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
 Lots.  Buggin’ sits down, then Sal comes out with the bat, then Mookie takes Buggin’ out.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
 Giving the pizza, refusing to take it, taking the parmesan, taking it away again, taking out the bat, Pino taking it away, etc.
If this is a big scene, is it broken down into a series of mini-goals?
 First, get some free extra cheese, then get some brothers on the wall, then get Buggin’ out of there before violence starts. 
The Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?
As a result of this scene, does at least one of the scene partners end up doing something that he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began?
 Yes, Mookie and Sal decide to kick Buggin’ out.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
 Not really.
Are previously-asked questions answered?
 Not really.
Are new questions posed that will be left unanswered for now?
 Will Buggin’ Out stay away?  Will his boycott take off?
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
 Yes, violence has now been intimated.
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
 No, it goes to the end. 
PART #5: DIALOGUE 18/19
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
 Very much so.  Each individual viewpoint is so strongly and empathetically stated that we have no idea where the author’s ultimate sympathies lie.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
 Very much so.  Only the camera sees the riot coming.
Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
 Very, very much so.  Even Buggin’ Out, the one person supposedly motivated by civic concerns, is really upset about cheese and his shoes.
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
 Yes and no.  There are times when they openly discuss issues that probably would not openly discuss or admitted to, but these moments are stylized (almost like Shakespearean asides), so it works. 
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say?
 For the most part.  Jade obliquely refers to Mookie’s baby.  Mookie and Sal are very indirect in their confrontation over Jade, etc.  But then we get explosions of people saying what they normally don’t say, like the racism montage, which is intentional and works well.
Do the characters listen poorly?
 Very much so.
Do the characters interrupt each other more often than not?
 Very much so.
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
Does the dialogue capture the jargon of the profession and/or setting?
 Very much so.
Does the dialogue capture the tradecraft of the profession being portrayed?
 Not really.  We don’t learn very much about the pizza business here.
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families (different from the hero’s, even if they’re in the same profession)?
 Sal: Italian-American “The both of youse” “this is a respectable business.” And subtle racism “You paying now or on layaway?” Pino: open racism “How come you niggers are so stupid?  Da Mayor: old-fashioned “Good morning, gentlemen” “Clean as the Board of Health”
Are there additional characters with default personality traits?
 Sal: magnanimous, Pino: angry, Vito: sweet, Buggin’: agitated, Raheem: very agitated
Are there additional characters with default argument strategies?
 Sal: increasingly irritated reminders, Pino: muttered asides, Buggin’: appeal to (his own) logic.
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
 Yes.
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
 Very much so.
Is there a minimum of commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
 Yes.
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
 Yes, everyone.
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
 Senor Love Daddy: head/heart. Sal: Heart. Pino, Raheem and Buggin’: spleen. Mookie: gut.
Strategic: Are certain dialogue scenes withheld until necessary?
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
 There is almost no exposition, but what little there is (such as why they have their pizzeria here) comes out gradually and naturally.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
 There are several, but that is explained by the heat making everybody irritable.  It’s clear that there wouldn’t normally be this many confrontations.   
PART #6: TONE 15/16
Genre: Does the story tap into pre-established expectations?
Is the story limited to one genre (or multiple genres that are merged from the beginning, without introducing a new genre after the first quarter?)
 Comedy-drama, mixed throughout.
Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
 “Urban”, the day-in-the-life-of-a-city genre.
Does the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre and sub-genre?
 Yes, it’s very funny also a satisfying drama.
Are unrealistic genre-specific elements a big metaphor for a more common experience (not how life really is, but how life really feels)? 
 There are no unrealistic genre elements. (There are elements of intentional theatricality in the style and art direction, but no unrealistic plot conventions)
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
 Comedy and drama come with fewer expectations than other genres, and it meets them all.
Mood: Does the story create a certain feeling?
Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
 Vibrant, brash, outrageous, buoyant.
Are the physics of the world (realistic or stylized?) established early and maintained throughout?
 Not really.  Because of the musical-inspired stylization, we don’t a sense that this will be a violent world until it is, but this works well.
Is the nature of the stakes (lethal, social, psychological and/or spiritual?) established early and maintained throughout?
 Sal says at the beginning “I’m gonna kill someone today.” SLD warns of potential violence early one.  
Framing: Does the story set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
Are open questions posed in the first half, which will keep the audience from asking the wrong questions later on?
 Will they get through the day?  Will Sal kill someone today?  Will Vito stand up to Pino? Will Mookie visit Tina? 
Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the story?
 It’s clear that this will be the story of one day, and it is asked what will be the consequences of the heat.
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
 Senor Love Daddy is our narrator, and he warns us that this will be a hot, dangerous day.
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
 Will Mookie end up like Da Mayor?  Like Sal? Should he be more like Buggin’ Out?  Like his sister?
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
 Yes, Sal takes out the bat early on, then puts it away unused,  Raheem fights a boombox battle with the Koreans, the Italian-American has his car soaked, etc. 
Are set-up and pay-off used to dazzle the audience (and maybe distract attention from plot contrivances)?
 Amazingly, we don’t associate Smiley’s photos with the Wall of fame until the end (even though Smiley is visible out side in the wide shot of the Wall of Fame!), because they’re on such different tracks. When Smiley puts the picture on the wall at the end of riot, we smile instead of roll our eyes.
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
 Mother sister reverses her stance on Da Mayor, Mookie stays the night, Vito stands upt to Pino.
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
 Yes, we find out the consequences of the heat.
PART 7: THEME 19/14
Difficult: Is the meaning of the story derived from a fundamental moral dilemma?
Can the overall theme be stated in the form of an irreconcilable good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
 Integration vs. self-preservation
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
 Pino: “Who’s working for who?”
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
 Not much.  There are few moral dilemmas until the end.
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
 Very much so.
Does the story have something authentic to say about this type of setting (Is it based more on observations of this type of setting than ideas about it)?
 Very much so.  There are a million little authentic observations, like the kids scraping the cans on the sidewalk to better direct the spray of water.
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
 Very much so.  Real life police killings are referred to many times.
Are these issues addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
 Yes.
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
 Yes.
Subtle: Is the theme interwoven throughout so that it need not be discussed often?
Do many small details throughout subtly and/or ironically tie into the thematic dilemma?
 Yes.  Raheem’s speech, Mother Sister’s advice, the interactions with the Koreans, etc.
Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
 The bat, the boom box, etc.
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimate irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards on one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
 It’s still split pretty much evenly at the end, as evidenced by the conflicting quotes from Martin and Malcolm
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
 Yes, Mookie just wanted to get paid, but he destroys his job instead.
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
 Yes.  Will Mookie comes back to Tina, etc.
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
 They do discuss it, but they don’t kill the meaning or settle the dilemma as they do so.