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.