Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Podcast Episode 17: Two More Character Tricks

Hi everybody! So this is all very confusing, but one month ago, James and I had a marathon night where we recorded enough material for two podcasts, then George Floyd was murdered, and we decided to sit on them so as not to distract from the painful and long overdue reckoning that followed. Now we’ve finally gone back and recorded a bit more material for both, and I’ve finished cutting them. I’ve posted one and now and I’ll post the next in a week or two. Hope you like it.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Believe Care Invest: Chinatown

Why it might be hard to identify with Jake:
  • He cares more about his venetian blinds than his client’s feelings. He’s a money-grubbing bottom feeder, but he’s also a bit of a dandy, and neither of those are very appealing to us. These things help our ability to believe in his reality, but hurt our ability to care about him.
  • Right away, we’re saying, “Oh, this isn’t a phony Hollywood PI, this is the real deal, handling sordid divorce cases.” On a “Believe” level, we find his non-noble attitude to his clients to be refreshing: We’re finally getting to see what PIs are really like. Later, while he’s supposed to be investigating his clients at the Water Board hearing, he’s reading the Racing Form.
  • We don’t really care about Jake until 16:38, when another customer at his barbershop accosts him, saying, “You’ve got a hell of a way to make a living.” Jake, wounded, says, “Listen pal, I make an honest living, people only come to me in a desperate situation, I help ‘em out.” Now that we’ve seen him endure a public humiliation, we care a bit more about him.
  • He then has another embarrassment we identify with when he tells the dirty joke to his operatives and doesn’t realize Mrs. Mulwray is behind him.
  • From the opening photographs, we can see that he’s obviously good at his job, but we’re not sure how skilled he has to be to do it. It’s only when he pulls a very clever trick that we suddenly invest in him: He gets tired of waiting for Mulwray to leave the beach, so he reaches in his glove compartment where he’s got a stash of cheap fob watches. He puts one under Mulwray’s tire and goes home. The next day he checks the broken watch to see what time Mulwray left. Suddenly, we love this guy. We always love resourceful heroes.
Five Es
  • Eat:No
  • Exercise: He walks a lot, climbs building and cliffs, etc.
  • Economic Activity: His whole life is his job.
  • Enjoy: Not at first. At the water board meeting, he thinks it’s funny when a farmer brings his sheep in. Later, he loves telling his operatives the dirty joke. (Often, enjoyment opens a hero up to embarrassment)
  • Emulate: I guess you could say he dresses like a classier PI than he is.
Rise above
  • He tells fake Mrs. Mulwray she should let sleeping dogs lie. “You’re better off not knowing.”
High five a black guy
  • Nope.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Believe Care Invest: Casablanca

Why it might be hard to identify with Rick:
  • We don’t even meet him for 9 full minutes, and we wait even longer for him to speak. We spend that time looking for some character to invest in, not finding one, and getting frustrated. Once we meet him, he’s fairly cold and ruthless, and somewhat accommodating of his Nazi occupiers.
  • The opening narration creates a complex and fascinating world that feels very real. The production design is fantastic. It really feels like we’re in an outdoor African city rather than an indoors Los Angeles studio.
  • Rick has a distinctive way of dressing and speaking. He has a strong personality. He has lots of secrets, which we always like: “I came to Casablanca for the waters.” “What waters? We’re in the desert.” “I was misinformed.”
  • Nazis are everywhere. Someone is gunned down in the street for having Free French fliers. Rick clearly dislikes having to accommodate them. He betrays just a tiny hint of wistfulness when he watches the plane fly off to Lisbon. He likewise betrays a hint of guilt when Ugarte is pulled out of his arms by the Nazis. He’s a bit embarrassed when another customer says to him, “When they come to get me, Rick, I hope you’ll be more of a help.” But of course we don’t really care about him until his true love shows up married to someone else.
  • He has total control of his bar in lots of badass ways, and a lot of sway in Casablanca. “Perhaps if you told him I run the second largest banking house in Amersterdam?” “It wouldn’t impress Rick, the leading banker in Amersterdam is now the baker in our kitchen.” He finds little ways to stand up to the Nazis He knows all. He knows that Ugarte killed the couriers and calls him on it.
Five Es
  • Eat: No. “Madame, he never drinks with customers, never.”
  • Exercise: No
  • Economic Activity: Lots of it
  • Enjoy: No, he specifically refuses wine, women, and song.
  • Emulate: No
Rise above
  • Refuses Deutchbanker’s money “You’re lucky the bar’s open to you.”
  • CafĂ© and Sam not for sale at any price “I don’t buy or sell human beings.”
  • Tells one of his bar customers, “You’ve had too much to drink.”
High five a black guy
  • Very much so! Sam won’t take double to work for Ferrari.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Believe Care Invest: Bridesmaids

I might be posting seven days a week for the next few months. Hmm, I wonder why...?  No telling!

Why Annie Might Be Hard to Identify With:
  • We debated on the podcast whether having sex helped us identify with a character. I said that it doesn’t, because everybody in the world is basically sexually unsatisfied, either in terms of quality or quantity. In this case, our heroine gets to have sex with Jon Hamm. She’s living the dream! How could anyone identify with that? 
  • …but the saving grace is that he’s a terrible lover, and she understandably doesn’t enjoy it. But c’mon, it’s Jon Hamm, so we can see why she would pretend to. 
  • When she has breakfast with Lillian, one of her complaints is “He calls me ‘dude’ a lot,” which is nicely relatable.
  • Later, her boss at the jewelry store says to her, “The whole reason you have this job is because your mom’s my sponsor in AA and I’m doing you a favor”, which is nicely oddly specific.
  • Jon Hamm says, “Wow, this is so awkward, I really want you to leave, but I don’t know how to say it without sounding like a dick.” She then has to climb over his gate to get out. Lillian tells her, “You hate yourself after you see him”
  • She has to walk by her shuttered bakery.
  • She’s losing her best friend. 
  • We really come to BCI all at one time when she wakes up the next morning, sneaks out of bed to do her hair and make-up, then sneaks back in and pretends to wake up. Very resourceful and adorable. (Other than that she’s a fairly hapless characters, so it’s a bit hard to invest in her.)
Five Es
  • Eat: She and Lillian have a happy breakfast. 
  • Exercise: She has energetic sex. She climbs over his gate. She and Lillian hide behind a tree to do sit-ups while listening to a personal trainer they didn’t pay for, then have to run away when he catches them.
  • Economic Activity: The personal trainer (Terry Crews) complains, “C’mon, it’s only 12 bucks.” She passes by her shuttered store: “I’m the genius who opened a bakery during the recession.” She now works at a jewelry store.
  • Enjoy: She and Annie are very funny and relaxed together, pretending to have horrible teeth, etc.
  • Emulate: Pretends to be a “cool girl”, telling Hamm, “I’m not looking for a relationship now either.” Her jewelry boss asks her to put on a “love is eternal” face.
Rise above
  • She says “I don’t want to go to work today.” At work, she tells a couple buying rings that love doesn’t last, putting her emotional need to vent over her professional duties.
High five a black guy
  • Her best friend is biracial, and a fully realized character, so it doesn’t apply.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Believe Care Invest: The Bourne Identity

Why Jason might be hard to identify with
  • He’s literally a blank slate. You might think we would most readily identify with an “everyman”, but they’re actually hard to identify with. We like heroes who know more than they show. 
  • But we always like characters who have a lot of secrets, and that’s still true when his secrets are even secret from himself. His wounds take a believable amount of time to heal. He practices saying “Tell me who I am” before the boat lands. Watching characters practice for conversations is always relatable, for some reason. 
  • He’s literally lost everything. He doesn’t even know his name. He’s afraid of every cop and every siren.  He’s a walking wound. 
  • He doesn’t know who he is, but right away he’s doing pull-ups on the boat.  He’s tying sophisticated knots compulsively. He speaks multiple languages. As soon as he confronts some cops, he busts out amazing moves to take them out. We love this bad-ass. Of course, as I’ve pointed out before, the moment we really fall in love with this is when he’s escaping from the embassy, sees an evacuation plan on the wall, and rips it off so he’ll have a map. 
Five Es
  • Eat: Just the opposite, he chooses not to eat with the sailors (but he must at some point). 
  • Exercise: He does pull-ups on the ship. 
  • Economic Activity: The ship doctor gives him some money, he goes to a bank to get the rest of his money. 
  • Enjoy: Nope he doesn’t enjoy anything until later in the movie.
  • Emulate: I guess sort of when he ties knots while hanging out with the sailors? I got nothing.
Rise above
  • He finds out who he is but decides not to report back to the US government. He leaves his guns behind in his safety deposit box, even though he’s figured out he’ll need them for whatever his job is. 
High five a black guy
  • Nope.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Believe Care Invest: Blue Velvet

Why Jeffry might be hard to identify with:
  • He’s odd. He’s detached. He’s ultimately kind of disturbed.
  • This world doesn’t really feel very realistic, and it certainly doesn’t feel like North Carolina, although it was actually shot there, but I think that’s intentional on Lynch’s part. He’s more interested in portraying an idea of “Americana” rather than a specific place in America.
  • So in some ways Jeffrey is hard to care about because he’s so odd, but it’s helps that he’s odd in specific ways. “I used to know a kid who lived there, had the biggest tongue in the world.” “You know the chicken walk?” We’ve never seen a kid be odd in quite this way, and that makes him more believable.
  • He’s come home from college because his dad is in a coma and he needs to help out. He visits his dad and it affects him. We also share his frustration when he’s given no information about the case.
  • He’s not the easiest hero to invest in, because he’s very unskilled, but we love curious heroes with good eyes, and he’s certainly that: He spots the ear that no one else would have spotted, and later says, “I’m just real curious like you said.”
Five Es
  • Eat: Not until minute 17, when he enthusiastically takes Sandy to Arlene’s diner.
  • Exercise: He likes to go for walks. There’s how he finds the ear, and later how he courts Sandy at night.
  • Economic Activity: He’s come home to work in his parents’ hardware store. The whole town is named after their industry, Lumberton.
  • Enjoy: He’s pretty joyless at first, but he starts to perk up when Sandy comes into his life. They’re awkward together but they still enjoy each other’s company.
  • Emulate: He imitates the police.
Rise above
  • He borrows the stores bug-spraying equipment under false pretenses in pursuit of his kink. Presumably he lets his investigation distract from his duties.
High five a black guy
  • This is a particularly egregious example. Suddenly Jeffrey is best buds with two black guys who work at the store, and then they disappear from the script forever! And one of them is seemingly magical, because he seems to see all even though he’s blind! “Oh it’s so good to have you back,” one of them says warmly.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Believe Care Invest: Blazing Saddles

Let’s see what James is missing!

Why Bart may be hard to care for:
  • He’s pretty instantly lovable. 
  • When we meet Bart, he’s working hard on the railroad, then the overseer comes up and complains that the black workers aren’t singing like in the slave days. Bart leads them in a chorus of Cole Porter’s “I Get No Kick From Champagne.” On the one hand, it’s literally unbelievable, since the song wasn’t written yet, but on the other hand, it’s so oddly specific that it makes him come alive. 
  • The deadly danger of Bart’s job is established right away as a Chinese co-worker passes out from heat exhaustion, only to get docked a day’s day for “sleeping on the job”. The extreme racism of his bosses is then established as they say the n-word many times and then refuse to rescue him from the quicksand. 
  • He’s very clever and badass. He humiliates his racist bosses, then pulls himself out of the quicksand, then hits his boss on the head. As sheriff, he brilliantly gets himself out a deadly situation. 
Five Es
  • Eat: Nope. 
  • Exercise: Bart goes over to check out the quicksand by using a handcar. 
  • Economic Activity: He’s working hard at his track-laying job. 
  • Enjoy: He has a fun time singing, mocking his bosses, and later mocking the governor. Once he’s sheriff, he enjoys riding into town in his new duds. He enjoys drinking with the Waco Kid. 
  • Emulate: He kicks up his heels on the governor’s desk. He acts like Randolf Scott once he’s sheriff. 
Rise above:
  • Refuses to sing what his bosses want him to sing. After they escape from the quicksand, Bart’s boss gives him a shovel and tells him to put it to good use. As Bart picks up the shovel, his friend sees what he’s going to do and says, “Don’t do that, man.” “Uh-uh baby.” “Don’t do that.” “I have to.” Bart stands up for himself and his co-workers though it puts his job at risk. 
High five a black guy
  • Hey, an actual black hero!  I promise we’ll have some more!

Monday, June 22, 2020

Believe Care Invest: The Babadook

Why Amelia may be hard to identify with:
  • She’s a very selfless character, and there’s always a big risk onscreen that this will be the same as self-less. Her life is consumed by taking care of her disturbed son and the residents of the old folks home where she works. She has no hobbies or interests of her own. Do such people exist? Of course, but it’s hard for us to identify with them. We identify most readily with moments of self-interested motivation. 
  • It’s absolutely essential that, after we’ve seen her selflessly serve her son and the old folks, we finally see her (reluctantly and morosely) masturbate in bed with a vibrator. She does have her own needs. Of course, she’s interrupted by her son, who’s had a bad dream and insists on sleeping in her bed. Later, when none of the old folks are responding to her bingo calling, she starts calling out numbers like five billion. She shows just enough independent personality for us to believe in her reality. 
  • We care for her immensely, as her life is almost all suffering. Her husband died on the way to the hospital where she gave birth to her son. Her son is now getting increasingly emotionally disturbed, endangering the lives of everyone around him. 
  • We see right away that she’s a good, loving mother as she shows her son that his closet and under his bed is empty. We see her do a good job taking care of the old folks. When her son reads the disturbing titular picture book, she seemingly stays up all night reading him pacifying books. 
Five Es
  • Eat: She’s briefly glimpsed having breakfast with her son. 
  • Exercise: No 
  • Economic Activity: She works her job. 
  • Enjoy: Her co-worker Robbie tries to a bit to joke around with her, but she can’t really join in. It’s tricky with horror movies, where you’re trying to create an increasingly oppressive tone. I think maybe it would have helped us believe in her if there had been a five second shot of her and her son having fun playing a game, just to convince us that she’s fully human and capable of moments of enjoyment. 
  • Emulate: Not that I could tell. 
Rise above
  • She leaves work when still on the clock to just sit in the mall having an ice cream cone (with disastrous results). 
High five a black guy
  • Nope.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Believe Care Invest: An Education

Let’s look at Lone Sherfig’s An Education, which is always a delight...

Why it might be hard to care about Jenny:
  • She’s fairly passive, but c’mon, it’s Carey Mulligan, we’re all gonna love her. 
  • We begin with a montage of her life in school (though we don’t really see her in it). They use the sides of their fists to make baby feet on the windows, which is something I remember from my childhood that I’d never seen onscreen before. 
  • She has an oddly specific metaphor family of injecting French into her conversations awkwardly. 
  • Her father tells her she’s not allowed to think for herself. The boy who likes her is dull.  She’s stuck in the rain.  
  • She’s so much cooler and smarter than her parents or the boy in her class who likes her. She listens to French pop. She’s interested in the arts. She’s the only one who can answer the teacher’s question about “Jane Eyre”. We like her for not disliking that David is Jewish, and calling out her dad’s prejudice. 
Five Es
  • Eat: Yes, she’s eating with her parents in the first real scene, then again when Graham comes over. She goes out for espresso with her friends. 
  • Exercise: In the montage, they’re hula-hooping, learning dance (Girls dancing with each other), playing lacrosse, etc. She walks through the snow to get to school. 
  • Economic Activity: He gives her the amount of money for a new cello for the right to drive alongside her with her cello in his car. He buys her lots of stuff right away. 
  • Enjoy: She and her friends hang out and laugh. She enjoys listening to French records. 
  • Emulate: She uses French whenever she can and tells her classmates of her plans to become a Frenchwoman after Oxford 
Rise above
  • Well, she thinks a relationship with David will allow her to rise above her petty circumstances, but in fact he’s using money to seduce her into sex and a life of crime, so she’s more a prisoner of her economic circumstances than she realizes. If she had money (either came from money or worked a job), she would be more immune to David’s charms.
High five a black guy
  • Nary a person of color to be seen.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Believe Care Invest: Alien

Okay, that went well, so let’s continue alphabetically and go on to Alien. How does the movie get us to believe, care, and invest in Ripley?

Why she might be hard to care for:
  • Because they’re intentionally hiding the fact that she’s the hero! This movie wants to do a fake out and kill the person who seems to be the hero halfway through, so they’ve got to subtly build up Ripley to be a compelling back-up hero without us noticing. A very tricky proposition!
  • As sci-fi, the biggest trick is to get us believe in the existence of this weird world. They do this with how un-sci-fi it is: how dingy the ship is, the way the lights flicker on unsteadily, etc. There’s an odd little drinking-bird toy sitting out. The space traffic control base being in Antarctica is a good example of “Make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.”
  • As for Ripley, she’s the only one who pets the cat. She says, “That’s not our system” in a sing-song-y voice.  She tells Brett to fuck off.  She’s wearing Converse All-Stars, which is always a likeable shoe.  I’m stretching here.
  • The others complain about being woken up early, but she doesn’t. Eventually we feel for her when she has to choose between the life of her crewmember and the safety of the rest of the crew ...and when she gets overruled, possibly because she’s a woman (though the part was written for a man.)
  • She’s the only one who’s willing to go from upstairs to downstairs to visit Parker and Brett. She seems to be the most careful about her job.  She takes the initiative to decode the transmission and finds out it’s a warning, then asks to go warn the others. 
Five Es
  • Eat: They all eat breakfast together right away.
  • Exercise: None whatsoever. It’s a very still movie.
  • Economic Activity: We begin with an onscreen title: “Commercial towing vehicle, ‘The Nostromo’ Refinery processing: 20,000,000 tons of mineral ore.” All they talk about is the company, what they owe it, and what it owes them. They act because of “Penalty of total forfeiture of shares.”
  • Enjoy: They enjoy breakfast and joke around right away: “I feel dead.” “Anybody every tell you you look dead?” They all laugh, even Ripley just slightly
  • Emulate: Not that I can see, but maybe James will point out something I missed again.
Rise above:
  • Not right away, but eventually.  Ripley doesn’t rise above her economic circumstances until near the end of the movie, when she finally breaks with the company.
High five a black guy:
  • The first we see of her is when she laughs at the black guy’s joke. In this case, he’s a fully realized character, so it’s not an egregious example.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Believe Care Invest in The 40 Year Old Virgin

Okay guys, I’ve been meaning to do these for some time, especially after James dropped his five E’s on us in the last podcast. So I’ve subjected all my movies to a five Es test… but now James wants to drop two more E’s in the next podcast, and I don’t want to have redo all of these so I’d better start posting these first! So let’s start (alphabetically) with Judd Apatow’s The 40 Year Old Virgin!

For each of these, we’ll start with: Why the hero might be hard to care for:
  • John Powers is one of my favorite film critics of all time. When he was reviewing You’ve Got Mail (a remake of The Shop Around the Corner) on “Fresh Air”, he lamented that, “Of course, in this new version, the man and woman both run their own businesses. They can’t work in a shop, because then they’d be losers.” He was right to decry the bastardization or the original, but the fact is, audiences do have a bias against characters who work in retail, so that was something Apatow had to overcome to get us to root for Andy in this movie. 
  • And of course, Andy’s a loser in lots of other ways. It’s one of the great paradoxes of writing: Audiences love underdogs, but we’re hardwired not to like losers, because we want to invest in a hero to win in the end, and we won’t invest in a character who seems like they’re bound to lose. Walking the thin line between underdog and loser is one of any writer’s hardest tasks. 
  • As I used to show in this video (before I went back and censored the clip, because a lot of kids were watching the videos) Andy begins this movie with one of the all time great “Believe” moments: He wakes up with a massive erection, then has to figure out how to pee. The best “Believe” moments are those that make you say, “I recognize that from my own life, but I never thought I’d see it on screen! This is so real!” 
  • We care right away because he seems very lonely, and painfully awkward around the woman in the store, then we wince with embarrassment for him as he tries to hide his shameful secret, unconvincingly telling the others, “No ass is worth thinking that much about, I always say.” 
  • It’s not tremendously easy to invest in Andy yet. It is good that he kicks the guys’ asses at poker. …But wait, let’s look at James’s five Es! They may tell us more about why we invest… 
The Five E’s:
  • Eat: Andy makes himself a nice-looking breakfast, then recounts to Cal a story about carefully making himself an egg salad sandwich. 
  • Exercise: Andy has no sexual outlet, but it’s not for lack of keeping himself in shape. He wakes up and exercises several ways. Then he bicycles to work 
  • Economic Activity: He goes to his job at a stereo store, and seems to do his work well. 
  • Enjoy: Andy can’t really enjoy himself at home, or chatting with co-workers, but then he tries to enjoy hanging out with the guys, and almost succeeds until his love life comes up. 
  • Emulate: For some reason, when he exercises, he looks at a picture of Doug Henning, but that’s all I got. 
In the podcast, I mentioned that character often have a moment where they have to rise above their circumstances, so does he do that?
  • When they invite him to play poker in the story after hours, he says he’ll tell the boss, and they believe him, but then he reveals he was just joking. He’s willing to put his job at risk to find belonging. 
And finally, does he five a black guy?
  • Very much so. Before he bicycles away, he says a friendly hello to his black upstairs neighbors Joe and Sara, who will basically never be seen again.
So is this exercise worth doing?  Let me know!  I think James E’s are proving out to generate some good clues to likeability.  Let’s keep going...