Podcast

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Ultimate Story Checklist: Blue Velvet

Updated to the sixth and final checklist!

The discovery of a severed human ear in a field leads Jeffrey Beaumont on an investigation related to beautiful, mysterious nightclub singer Dorothy Valens and a group of criminals who have kidnapped her child, led by nitrous-huffing psychopath Frank Booth. Over the course of his investigation, Jeffrey enters into a sadomasochistic sexual relationship with Dorothy while also romancing Sandy Williams, the daughter of the police chief.
PART #1: CONCEPT 19/19
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?                                                                 
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
 A voyeuristic college student finds a severed ear in a field, leading him to discover the dark side of his small town and himself.
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
 Yes, an idealistic amateur detective discovers he’s just as creepy as those he investigates.
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
 Yes, a coming of age story in which the adult world our young man discovers is insanely dark and evil.
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
 Yes and no.  There’s lots of plot, but it mostly takes place off screen and remains unexplained so that the movie can focus on character
Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
 Yes, Jeffrey.
Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily life? 
 Yes. Two hours of deleted scenes attest to how slimmed down the story is (only stills survive, but those stills can be seen on the DVD).
Does the story present a unique relationship?
 Yes, an amateur investigator in a sadomasochistic relationship with his target.
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
 Yes, many, but especially Frank.
Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
 Yes, all three.  Ironic answer: Why do there have to be people like Frank, he asks, but he’s becoming Frank.
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
 Very much so.
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)?
 Yes.  He’s endangering both women that he’s falling in love with, but he’s compelled to continue.
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
 Yes and no. He has to shoot Frank because the police don’t get there fast enough, but if he hadn’t intervened we sense that they could have solved the problem better.  We’ll never know if the police couldn’t have just handled it better on their own.  It’s possible Jeffrey did more harm than good, but that doesn’t hurt the movie, because we find his neurosis fascinating.
Does the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?
 Yes. He pretends to have reverted to normal at the end, but we don’t buy it.
The Hook: Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?
Does the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre?
 Yes and no.  It’s an effective Hitchcockian/erotic thriller in the end, but it doesn’t “feel” like a thriller for most of its run time.  What it feels like is an art film, and it mostly satisfies those viewers, but not entirely.  It’s stuck somewhat between the two audiences.
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
 Yes, many: the ear, the blue velvet, the robins, the weird heart attack, the beetles, the nitrous, etc…
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
 Yes, many.  Almost every scene, in fact.
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
 Yes, Jeffrey hitting her, her showing up at his house, Frank being the well-dressed man, Gordon being a cop, etc…
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 19/22
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?)
 Lots of oddball moments.  Just the way he says “I found an ear.”  When he shows Sandy the chicken walk.
Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
 Yes.  We never learn any backstory.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
 Yes, the good son.
Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
 Yes, the creepy voyeur.
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
 Yes, ‘50s gee-whiz speak.
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
 Yes, creepy placid optimism.
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
 Ignoring all disagreement, proceeding with a slight smile.
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
 No.  He has no obvious motivation to investigate this case.  We have to surmise that his actions are motivated by a deep-seated neurosis that predates the movie.
Care: Do we feel for the hero?
Does the hero start out with a shortsighted or wrongheaded philosophy (or accept a false piece of advice early on)?
“I’m just real curious” “I don’t want to cause any trouble.” “No one will suspect us because no one would believe two people like us would be crazy enough to do something like this.” He believes that he’s fundamentally different from Frank.
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
 Yes, he’s there to help out with his father’s hardware store.
Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a hidden, private fear?
 Yes, that the people who cut off the ear will never be caught. Yes, that the world is evil, that he’s evil.
Is the hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?
 Yes.  He feels pain when hit, and even more pain when he does the hitting.
Does the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)
 Yes for each: he’s voyeuristic, creepy, and morally slippery
Invest: Can we trust the hero to tackle this challenge?
…Is that great flaw (ironically) the natural flip-side of a great strength we admire?
 Yes, he’s curious, charming, and a great improviser
Is the hero curious?
 Very much so.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
 Very much so.   He figure out how to break in, how to trick Frank at the end, etc.
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
 Look under rocks, you only live once, I can get away with anything
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
 Yes, nobody else would have noticed the ear or other things he spots.  No one but he would have discovered the cop was a crook.
…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
 No.  He’s polite and softspoken, hiding his internal turmoil. He certainly has qualities that those around him lack, but he’s in no hurry to let them know that out loud. His roiling internal contradictions become clear to us through his shocking actions, not because he speaks up to share his unique point of view.
Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
 No.  He’s aimless.
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
 Yes, like many heroes, he just lost his father, putting him in charge of his own affairs.
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
 Somewhat: he uses the bug spray to get in, etc.
PART #3: STRUCTURE (If the story is about the solving of a large problem) 19/21
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)?
 Only slightly, in that we see him chafe and his treatment by his mom, who clearly sees him as still a kid (His real “problem” scenes were cut out in the editing room. They’re in the script that’s online, and worth reading.  We meet him already spying on a girl being almost date-raped at college, and only stopping it when someone else is approaching, then his mom tells him that not only does he have to come home, but that they won’t be able to afford college for him anymore, and he’s frustrated.  He feels that there will be no outlet for his darker impulses at home.)
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
 Both scenes above would apply, but they were both cut, so we only have a free-floating sense of his frustration, which is fine.
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
 In his own twisted way: he finds an ear, which represents a chance to find the hidden truth about his town.
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
 No, he plunges in willfully and heedlessly.
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
 Yes, sooner.
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?
 Yes, Dorothy, then Frank.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
 Yes, he tries to hide and spy without being seen, but he’s caught first by Dorothy, then by Frank.
Does the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?
 Yes, he enjoys his voyeurism, and even gets to have sex with his target. He smiles big when he tells Sandy about some of it.
Does the easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a safe space and/or sheltering relationship?
 The crises are in an unusual order.  At first it seems like he has an early physical disaster, but he enjoys being raped at knife-point, so it’s not a problem, but then she gets him to hit her at the halfway point, which makes for an early spiritual disaster, and at the ¾ point he finally has a real physical disaster, getting beaten up and almost killed. The closet is no longer safe, and then his house isn’t either, because Dorothy shows up there.
3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
 Yes, he admits his secret investigation to Sandy’s father, admits his voyeurism to Sandy.
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
 Yes, he finds out that a cop is in on it, and that Sandy is better able to straddle both worlds than Dorothy is.
Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
 Yes, there are car chases and his world is invaded.
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
 Yes. He gets caught and beaten up, and realizes that Dorothy is too lost to save.
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
 Well, the real spiritual crisis happens earlier, and continues for a long time, but it does culminate when he sees how his behavior looks in Sandy’s eyes when she finds out. 
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
 Not really: he remains conflicted throughout.  When Detective Williams says “You’re all through with this now?” he responds “Yes sir, I sure am,” but he continues investigating.   Later, he says to Sandy, while holding Dorothy, “Forgive me, I love you.”
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
 Yes.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
 Yes, he’s proactive throughout.
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
 Yes, Frank unexpectedly shows up.
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
 Yes, in a fairly cliché way, Sandy and her father burst in as he shoots Frank.  Dorothy isn’t there, though.
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
 Yes, he comes shooting out of the closet.
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’s embraced his parent’s idyllic life and possibly married Sandy, but we see the Robin eating the beetle and we have to wonder if he’s crushed or absorbed the evil, which are two different ways of reading that image.
PART #4: SCENEWORK 18/20 (Jeffrey spies on Dorothy and Frank, then Dorothy catches Jeffrey in her apartment and seduces and/or rapes him at knifepoint.)
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?
 Yes, he’s explained how he intends to get out before she arrives.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
 No, it begins at the beginning and continues uncut.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
 Yes, he’s hiding and spying in a stranger’s apartment.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
 Yes, Dorothy isn’t prepared for this.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
 Yes, oddball bits of conversation that go nowhere.  The nitrous.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
 Yes, we know that she’s coming home, then we know that she’ll eventually use the closet, then we suspect that Frank could come by, then we wonder how much Jeffrey can take until he interferes, then we wonder if he can get out before he gets knifed.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character through emotional reactions?
 Both. They’re both put through the ringer emotionally.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
 Yes.  It’s interesting: at first, we share his salacious desires, then when he succeeds beyond his and our wildest dreams (He finds out her dark secrets, sees her undress, sees her cry, then gets to have sex with her.  That’s pretty much the peeping tom’s grand slam) we’re both turned on and revolted, both by the general situation and his sketchy reaction.  By the end, we’re rooting for him to not have sex with her, but he does it anyway.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
 Yes, he wants to learn all, then to have sex, then to learn more, then to comfort her, then once again to have sex .  She wants to get ready for bed, then she wants to talk to her son, then she wants to confront him, then she wants to punish herself with masochistic sex, then she wants to placate Frank.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
 Yes: surface: why are you spying on me, what did you learn? Suppressed, for both: what’s wrong with me?
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
 Yes: he’s in the closet in more ways that one. The knife is a phallus, implying a reversal of the rapist role.
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
 Yes.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
 Yes, they each trick information out of the other.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
 Yes, lots. Yes, the scene begins with lots of distance and gradually culminates in lots of touching.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
 Yes, she takes his wallet, then his ID, he takes her knife, she takes him in sexually.
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. Jeffrey confesses all and undresses, they both have sex.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
 Yes, he goes there to violate her privacy in secret but he winds up totally exposed.
Are previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?
 Previous: We get a lot more info about several questions, but no complete answers yet. Who all did she talk to on the phone?  Who is Don? Why is she like this?
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.
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
 We’re now worried that Jeffrey is losing his soul in the process of his investigation.
PART #5: DIALOGUE 12/16
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
 Yes, in its own way.  Lynch’s style is cold, but everybody, even Frank, is vulnerable.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
 Yes.
Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
 Yes, Jeffrey seems to be investigating selflessly, but it’s clearly just for his own kicks.  He and Frank have a lot in common, including kinkiness, compulsion, and bouts of crying. 
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
 Yes, every time Jeffrey wants to say something genuine, he says something dippy instead to stop himself. 
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they wouldn’t do?
 Yes, he and Sandy avoid talking about her boyfriend, Dorothy never explains anything satisfactorily.
Do the characters interrupt each other often?
Not really
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
Does the dialogue capture the jargon and tradecraft of the profession and/or setting?
 Not really.  You hear snippets of lumber talk on the radio, but for the most part the talk is decontextualized and intentionally generic.  This is Anytown, USA. Almost everybody is an amateur, and the dialogue is oddly stylized.
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?
Metaphor familes: Dorothy has the language of a sexual submissive and lapses into schizophrenia at times, and Frank is both a top/bottom: “Mommy, baby wants to fuck!”  Frank also has the language of film noir: “I’m gonna send you a love letter.  Straight from my heart, fucker.  You know what a love letter is?  It’s a bullet.  Straight from my gun, fucker!” Personality traits: Dorothy: crazy.  Frank: sadist.  Sandy: optimism mixed with an urge to misbehave. Argument strategies: Frank traps you with your own words. Dorothy ignores your objections and uses her body to influence you
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
 Yes. All of Jeffrey’s plans are concisely laid out. 
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
 Yes.
Are there minimal commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
 Not really.  The language is oddly formal.
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
 Yes. The sentences are all simple.
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
 Hmm…I guess you could say Jeffrey is head (a Hamlet-like character, called home from college and still living in his head, acting without realizing that his actions affect the world) Sandy and Dorothy are two very different types of heart, and Frank is gut?  That seems like a stretch though.
Strategic: Are certain dialogue scenes withheld until necessary?
Does the hero have at least one big “I understand you” moment with a love interest or primary emotional partner?
Not really.  Nobody ever gets him.
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
 Yes, Jeffrey jumps in with very little information.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
 Yes and no: the subtext falls away when Dorothy shows up at Jeffrey’s house, but Jeffrey and Sandy still don’t have it out openly.
PART #6: TONE 10/10
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?)
 Yes.  It’s a Hitchcockian/erotic thriller throughout, albeit it an odd one.
Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
 Yes, the voyeur, crooked small-town movie.
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
 Yes, the villain is killed and the girl is got, but we suspect that the hero will never be satisfied now that he’s seen the dark side.
Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
 Yes, very much so.  Post-modern, creepy, oddly optimistic, sleazy. This is established instantly in the pan down from the perfect flowers to the beetles underneath, the dog ignoring its owners distress to drink from the hose instead, etc.  This is a world with a dark underbelly in which bonds are breaking down.  The danger is that the darkness will surge to the surface.
Framing: Does the story set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
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?
 Yes, whose ear is that?
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
 Yes, the mom is watching film noirs (films noir?) on TV, and we see gumshoes on the TV doing what Jeffrey is about to do.
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
 Yes, he doesn’t want to end up like his father, he’s afraid he’ll end up like Frank.
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
 Sandy has a dream of how the movie will end, keeping the focus on issues of good and evil, rather than the details of this crime.
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
 Well, we get transferable behavior when he waters the plants like his father, and then when the robin eats the beetle: goodness consumes (or absorbs) evil?  He hides for different reasons at the beginning and end.
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
 Yes, we finally see the man with the missing ear.
PART 7: THEME 12/14
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?
 Yes, two evils: naivete vs. cynicism
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
 Yes, Sandy says, “I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert,” so the question is, “Is there a difference?”  Later, Jeffrey asks, “Why are there people like Frank?  Why is there so much trouble in this world?” which really means “Why am I becoming like Frank?”
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
 Yes, (well, they don’t have to, but they choose to) Is it wrong to spy to solve a crime, to steal a girl from a lame lunk-head, to accept sex from a damaged woman, etc…
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
 Yes and no, it’s nightmarish and bizarre, but still feels fairly real. 
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)?
 Not really.  This is an ideas movie. The city and region are never named.  This is set in an idea of middle America, not a specific reality. 
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
 Somewhat: drug violence coming to small town.
Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
 Yes.
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
 Yes, every transgression causes real suffering.
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, everybody is eavesdropping on each other in different ways. 
Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
 Yes, the ears, the strip of blue velvet, the party hat, etc.
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimate irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
 Not really, we still can’t decide which is worse: naivete or cynicism. Jeffrey has decided to restore his life to a level of naive idealistic artifice, but it is merely a mask for his yawning chasm of dark cynicism, and we sense that he’s still utterly torn between these two unpleasant choices.
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
 Yes, he defeats evil by absorbing it
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
 Yes, huge questions are left unanswered.
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
 Yes, they never talk about what it all means.
Final Score: 109 out of 122

2 comments:

AD said...

When you say "real content" - I gotta tell you… filled-in checklists are a rung below long-form analysis in my books. In fact, that could be what's missing from your checklists. What if you added a short paragraph at the bottom? Something akin to the "conclusions" section of a scientific research paper.

Matt Bird said...

Never fear, AD, the way I've been doing things recently is I run a checklist on Sunday and then look some of the answers more in depth for the rest of the week.