Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Rulebook Casefile: Ironic Special Skills in “Get Out”

James and I just sang the praises of Total Recall on our recent podcast, but we didn’t mention one of my pet peeves about that movie. Arnold eventually ends up strapped to a chair: He seems to have accomplished so much, but now he discovers that everything he has done was really just bringing him into Ronny Cox’s elaborate trap. Ronny has been playing ten moves ahead this entire time, guessing everything Arnold might possibly do and effortless manipulating him into bringing in the mutant leader. Now Ronny just needs to wipe Arnold’s mind again and restore his original personality.

But then Arnold does the one thing that Ronny couldn’t possibly have predicted: he raises his arm! He then breaks the chair, and runs away.

This drives me crazy: You could predict every possible movie Arnold could make, but you couldn’t predict he would raise his arm? Arnold doesn’t use some clever trick or special weapon he’s found as a result of his journey. He just does what anyone could predict he would do, and gets away fairly easily.

Chris in Get Out faces a similar predicament. He, too, ends up 2/3 of the way into the movie strapped to a chair, outdone by a villain who has been way ahead of him and manipulating his behavior the entire movie. He is even more helpless than Arnold, because the villains only have to ding a spoon on a teacup (live or on tape) to turn him to jelly.
So how does Chris get away? Unlike Arnold, he does something clever: He plucks cotton from his chair armrests and plugs his ears. (As Peele points out in his commentary, this black man ironically picks some cotton to avoid slavery.)  Assuming that he’ll be unconscious, Jeremy then frees him to take him to surgery, but Chris springs to life and knocks out Jeremy with a bocce ball.

But couldn’t the villains have predicted that, too? Why would they put him in a place where he would have access to cotton stuffing with which to plug up his ears? And wouldn’t a previous captive have figured out the same thing?

But this brings us to another very ironic special skill: When Chris is being hypnotized, he flashes back to when he was a child, watching TV, correctly fearing his mom had been in an accident, but doing nothing. We see that he was betraying his anxiety in only one way: He was obsessively scratching at the armrest of the chair he was sitting on. As he’s being hypnotized by Missy, he starts to do the same thing, but Missy doesn’t notice. When he’s in the basement, hypnotized off and on for days, he naturally does it again, until he’s ripped open the leather and exposed the cotton.

In a thriller, it’s essential to establish early on the special skills that will allow your hero to get out of trouble later, preferably something the villain could not guess that the hero would know how to do. Total Recall failed to do this, but Get Out does it in a very ironic and odd way. Missy does not suspect Chris’s real superpower: The obsessive ability to scratch open armrests, given enough time.


James Kennedy said...

Yes! And here we discover a wrinkle to your rule, that it need not be a special "skill" -- since nobody would call Chris' unconscious repetitive tic a skill, right?

Similarly, in Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone, one of the things that helps Harry prevail against Quirrell is the fact that Quirrell can't touch him without feeling pain. This isn't really a skill of Harry's! It's just a property he has. Maybe the rule should be amended to "skill or unique characteristic."

Similarly in "Star Wars," it's not like Luke Skywalker could blow up the Death Star only because he had trained so hard with the Force. Indeed we only saw Luke practice with the Force once, on the way to Alderaan with the remote, and he didn't even seem that good at it. The Force "is with" Luke -- a property, not a honed skill. I think we can actually uncover an important rule here: maybe it's the hero's SKILLS that get them all the way to the climax, but at the climactic moment, it's an involuntary PROPERTY that carries them over the goal line.

Put in theological terms: Calvinist-style "works" (arduous, reliant on personal virtue) will get you to the climax, but only Catholic-style "grace" (free, undeserved, a gratuitous favor from God) can actually clinch the win at the final moment. You need both, and in that order.

As for "Total Recall," we already saw Arnold rip himself out of a mind-control chair 20 minutes into the movie, so it's fair to count that as a setup for when he rips himself out of another mind-control chair 90 minutes into the movie. What you might not remember, though, is that under his fake identity at the beginning of the movie . . . Arnold is working construction with a jackhammer! He's probably been doing it for years! That builds up physical strength, especially in the hands, and that's why the bad guy reasonably might not have predicted Arnold ripping himself out of the chair.

That jackhammering skill comes in handy a few scenes later, when they're on the run and the traitorous cabbie is about to squish them with his giant rock-drilling machine. Arnold picks up a jackhammery-type tool and drills right into the machine, killing the cabbie and getting them out of trouble. Hey, that's using a previously established skill!

At the end, in the real climax, the only thing that matters is that Arnold is super strong -- strong enough to hold on during the airbreak long enough so that he can push the button that starts up the ancient Martian terraforming machine so that he doesn't die when he's sucked out into the Martian atmosphere.

James Kennedy said...

P.S. And at that climax, it's not just his physical strength, it's that he TRUSTS that the ancient Martians (or whoever) had done their job right and that the machine would indeed work. And it's also Arnold making a decision to put himself on the side of the working class, for whom breathable air should be a right and not something purchased. This is a pro-working class movie throughout. The previous Arnold was in league with the bad guy. By pushing the button, this is the ultimate turning against the bad guy, and his old self.

Matt Bird said...

Oh, yeah, I'm not saying that Arnold is not using pre-established skills. They've established that this is within his skill range, and we believe it when he does it. But that's just the problem: Just looking at the guy, you could see that it'd be hard to keep him in a chair. Anybody would know that he might do this, which makes it crazy that the super-genius villains, who have been 10 steps ahead of him this whole time, knowing exactly would he would do in each situation, would be so surprised that he might try to lift his arm. "We accounted for every possibility ...except that!"

James Kennedy said...

But what do you think about my skills vs. property, works vs. grace distinction? I drop all this gold in your lap and you ignore it!!

Also: Total Recall is free on Hulu, so I just went back and re-watched the scene. It's not as simple as "he lifted his arm." After a lot of agony, he just barely rips out the restraints, which he then uses as weapons against the technicians, goring them with the bolts that he'd torn free while he's still shackled to them. It's a legit thrilling moment. I think the reason it works is because Arnold is clearly going through intense pain. That might actually be a sneaky trick, a tip for folks to use: we will process a plot development as "earned," even if it's not the cleverest thing in the world, as long as the hero SUFFERS a lot when doing it. Indeed I think there is a lot of stuff to be mulled over about the relationship of the audience to onscreen suffering. The vicarious enjoyment of other people's pain is not necessarily an intuitive or expected thing about human nature, why does it work so well? Thoughts?

Matt Bird said...

Okay, I'll address skills vs. property, works vs. grace for tomorrow's post, as well as suffering.

Adam said...

Maybe another way to put it is that the method a character uses to get out of trouble at the moment of climactic danger should ideally be something that was 1) established before but 2) not previously registered by the audience as a promising or useful skill

Like if a character says "I won gold in olympic archery" in act 1 and that's the skill that saves the day in act 3, that's better than nothing, but eyes will roll.

But if you establish that a character has psoriasis and it's the bane of their existence and then later they somehow use their flaky skin to save the world, that's very satisfying. Well, maybe not the perfect example but you know what I mean

Matt Bird said...

Good point. The most ridiculous example is "Jurassic Park: The Lost World", where Jeff Goldblum's daughter is established as would-be Olympic gymnast, then later has to cross a set of parallel bars to get away from the Velociraptors. Epic eye roll.

This old post speaks to what you're saying: http://www.secretsofstory.com/2015/03/storytellers-rulebook-planting.html. I say: "If you’re going to plant a solution, make it seem like a problem at the time, so that it won’t occur to the audience that this might come in handy later."

Adam said...

Speaking of which, there's an official Jurassic franchise short film that just came out involving both a daughter and archery:

In the first 30 seconds, the 6 year old kid says the neighbor has been teaching her how to shoot a crossbow. In the last 30 seconds, she shoots the dinosaur with a crossbow. Why did anyone think that would seem clever?

James Kennedy said...

I think for the climax, the "planted solution" must not even be a "problem." That tailors the advice too narrowly. It excludes useful cases. The climactic solution need only turn on a unique characteristic of the hero . . . and indeed, for a satisfying climax, an "involuntary" characteristic. Something unearned but essential about the hero.

I already mentioned above how this applies for Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter. Here's another example of this you-gotta-work-hard-to-get-to-the-climax-but-from-then-on-you-must-rely-on-grace structure: the climax of "Toy Story."

Buzz and Woody are working hard to catch up with the moving truck, which has all their toy friends in it. If they don't catch up, they'll never find where Andy's family is moving to, and they'll be separated from Andy and their friends forever. Even though Woody and Buzz commandeered a toy car and have strapped a firecracker to Buzz's back, they can't light the fuse. All their plans come to naught and they are stuck on the middle of the road as the truck drives away. All seems lost . . . until Woody is super clever (this is the "work hard" part), realizing that Buzz's helmet can focus sunlight to light the firecracker. It's lit, and our heroes blast off at top speeds, catching up with the truck!

Now, if Woody and Buzz caught up to the truck then, it would have felt clever, but it wouldn't have been FULLY SATISFYING, even though it technically fulfilled some dry formula of storytelling. You even could have argued it was "deep": Woody, who used to loathe Buzz, uses a characteristic of Buzz (his helmet) to solve the problem, thus signaling his acceptance/appreciation of Buzz! But that's not enough, because it's MERELY clever, it's MERELY hard work. For a climax to be fully satisfying, it requires the final intervention of the narrative equivalent of grace, the divine, the finger of god.

And so after the firecracker is lit, Buzz (carrying Woody) zooms so fast that it actually causes Woody pain (ah! there's the "suffering" part!), and Woody loses grip of the car. Without ballast, Woody and Buzz zoom high into the sky. Oh no! They can't possibly survive! They'll fall and shatter on the ground!

But then a unique, unearned characteristic of Buzz (*not* skill) saves the day: Buzz has wings, and thus they can "fly." Earlier in the movie Buzz believed he could fly, and Woody insisted Buzz couldn't fly, and Buzz sadly realized he indeed couldn't fly. But now, by falling out of the sky ("with style!"), Buzz accomplishes flying at last, fulfilling his deepest, seemingly impossible wish -- and Buzz uses that characteristic to plop right into the open sunroof of Andy's car, reuniting both Buzz and Woody with their beloved Andy. Climax!

It wasn't a *skill* that Buzz had. The first time we saw Buzz "fly," showing off to the rest of the toys, it only worked because of dumb luck: a sequence of crazy coincidences that happened to launch him. The second time Buzz tries to fly, he fails ignominiously, falling down the stairs and breaking off his armn. The third time, at the climax, Buzz flies only as a once-in-a-lifetime favor from the gods, granted after long effort and suffering.

The hero must work hard to get to that climax. All of that hard work puts the hero in the presence of the god. But once the hero is in the presence of the god, it's entirely up to the god, not the hero, whether the hero succeeds. It's out of Luke's hands whether the Force works or not. Harry must rely on magic deeper than his own fledgling skills to ward off Quirrell. Indy and Marian literally place themselves in the hands of god and say, Do what you will. And Woody and Buzz physically travel up into the heavens (a blue sky with white clouds, foreshadowed by Andy's bedroom wallpaper!), where god judges them fit to succeed, and sends them down to victory.

Shit, Matt, you should be paying me for this.

James Kennedy said...

Continuing in the theological vein, maybe the best phrase to sum up how climaxes work would be "the rejected stone shall be the cornerstone."

It's a *scorned,* *rejected* involuntary property that is essential to the hero that saves the day. Han Solo scorns Luke's belief in the Force. Woody scorns Buzz's belief he can fly. Harry doesn't feel good about the fact that his parents died for him. But in all three cases, it's that very characteristic -- the Force may really be with Luke, Buzz might really be able to fly, Harry's parents' sacrifice might really have given him magical protection -- that saves the day.

Matt Bird said...

Oh dear god, James, I'd already written up your last long comments for today's post, which goes up at 11 CDT. I can't process these new ones! Everything you say sounds very good.