Okay, guys, time for the big question: How on Earth should I organize this damn thing? In the pitch I sold, I proposed organizing it by example. Start out with some fun personal stuff like the last book, then have three longs chapters about Believe, Care and Invest (Possibly now to become Connect, Care, Commit?), then have 50 3-page chapters about 10 books, 10 movies, 10 TV pilots, maybe 10 non-fiction books, maybe 10 comics, something like that.
But now I’m doubting that. Obviously I’ve just done 20 movies here so far on the blog (more in raw data form than the actual essays I’d write for the book) That’s more examples than I’d off in the book, but right away it started feeling a little monotonous to me. If I just frog march my readers through 50 examples, pointing out similar things about each one, it could be hard to read the whole thing.
So I’m freaking out. So here are some other ideas:
I could organize it around pieces of advice, such as using humiliation, then give a lot of examples of that. The problem is that that’s the way I organized my last book, and it might seem too similar.
So here’s a new idea: Organize it around reasons that characters will be hard to identify with. Jerk heroes we love. Passive heroes we love. Petulant heroes we love. Then look at a bunch of examples of each and how they’ve overcome this baked-in liability. As we’ve seen, every great hero breaks some rule of identification, as well they should. You don’t want to have a mathematically-perfect Likeable Character. Something specific about this particular character is going to create a speed bump to likeability, and then you use your powers to get your audience over that speed bump.
I’d had an idea for another book called “The Exceptions: How to Break Every Writing Rule”. What if I kind of combined the ideas?
I dunno. Any other ideas? Organize my book and I’ll thank you in the acknowledgments!
Tuesday, July 28, 2020
Sunday, July 26, 2020
- Do you plan to report on the millions we’ve saved by advancing medical technology or kept from starvation with our intellicrops?
- The 40 Year Old Virgin: Well, I think he generally feels like a compassionate person, but does he really have a moment of compassion?
- Alien: Not really? She’s the only one who visits Parker and Brett, but not really out of compassion.
- An Education: Not really?
- The Babadook: She’s exceptionally kind to the old folks at the home she works in.
- The Bourne Identity: He seems like a nice guy, but… not really?
- Blazing Saddles: Not really? His rebellion at the beginning may be showing compassion for the Chinese woman who passes out out, but there’s no indication he even saw that.
- Blue Velvet: Not really?
- Bridesmaids: Not really?
- Casablanca: Well, he cuts off the girl who’s drinking too much?
- Chinatown: He claims he helps out people who need it, but we’re not sure we believe him.
- Do the Right Thing: Not really?
- Donnie Brasco: Not really?
- Frozen: Again, I think she generally feels like a compassionate person, but does she really have a moment of compassion?
- Get Out: He checks on the deer.
- Groundhog Day: No.
- How to Train Your Dragon: He won’t kill Toothless.
- In a Lonely Place: He’s nice to the old drunken actor.
- Iron Man: He talks about feeding the world, but we’re not sure we believe him. Certainly the reporter seems dubious.
- Lady Bird: Not really?
Thursday, July 23, 2020
As soon as we had an offer, I started panicking and posting movie BCI pieces everyday, not as a first draft of the book, but as data gathering. Now that we’re halfway through the alphabet let’s go ahead and figure out what we’ve got so far:
- Why the hero might be hard to identify with: I didn’t have this when we did the BCI novel pieces, but I think it’s essential, and might be a main organizing principle of the book.
- Believe: One of the things I’m learning is that the things that make a character believable are the same things that make them hard to like (such as the sordidness of Jake Gittes’s P. I. business.)
- Care: I’m getting a better sense of this.
- Invest: I’m inclined to stick with the BCI language because I’ve already used it in my first book, but I have wondered if I should stick with this word. Part of the problem with my title is that “Believe, Care, Invest” sounds like a book about investing! I kind of prefer “root for” now, but I’m not sure.
- Eat: It is wild how common this is and how much it does seem to add to each of these movies. A huge part of Believability.
- Exercise: This was already on the checklist and it’s clearly a big part of Invest.
- Economic Activity: This is also clearly very important, sometimes for Believe, Care, and Invest.
- Enjoy: This is clearly another big contributor to Believability. It goes far towards making a character, especially if they’re in a bad situation, feel like a complete human.
- Emulate: If you go through those 20 pieces, you’ll see that I found this in more than a few movies, but I’ve never been convinced it plays a big role in Believe, Care, or Invest.
And the final two categories I’ve been considering so far:
- Rise above: I think that my contribution to the the Five E’s turns out to be essential. I think I’ve discovered almost every character eventually rises above their economic situation (walks off their job) at some point, but when they do so (sooner or later) is a big part of what defines them. There’s probably some big theory still to be gleaned from digging into that data.
- High five a black guy: I think I’ll stop including these in these blog posts, and certainly won’t focus on this in the book. It’s a funny phrase, and a good way to skewer some movies (like Blue Velvet!), but it’s not an issue in many movies.
But that brings me to another issue that I’ve begun to feel I should be examining in each movie. In my first book, I point out that a moment of humanity sometimes involves compassion, and I’ve begun to wonder if BCI discounts compassion too much. Let’s discuss that next time...
Monday, July 20, 2020
- She’s bratty. Her mom asks “How did I raise such a snob?” She’s a little racist to her Latino brother.
- She begins by saying: “Do you think I look like I came from Sacramento?” We’ve never heard it put in quite that way, but we instantly identify: We’ve all wondered if our hometown leaves a taint on us. (Think about how terrible the generic version would be: “One day I’m going to make it out of this town and be somebody!”)
- One thing that could fall under both Believe and Care: She’s strident about things she’s wrong about. Again, we empathize, because we all remember what it was like to be precocious. She seems believably 17, moreso than most screen teens.
- Her mom is emotionally abusive: “You’re not even worth state tuition. Just go to city college, with your work ethic. Just go to city college, and then to jail, and then back to city college.” But she’s also accurate in some ways (“You don’t think about anybody but yourself,”) so it hits home.
- She pretends to know who Jim Morrison is when flirting with a guy, which is the sort of thing that always makes us wince with identification.
- She certainly does something active to protect herself from her mother’s verbal abuse, but it’s not exactly the cleverest solution: She jumps out of the moving car. Cut to a pink cast that has “Fuck you mom” written on it. So she’s kind of bad ass in a very hapless way.
- We admire her gumption. She runs for student government knowing she won’t win, and makes cool posters. She tries out for the musical with no experience and she’s the only one who dresses up.
- We admire her wit, although sometimes when she thinks she’s intentionally and unintentionally funny at the same time.
- Eat: She and the family have eggs. She and her friend wolf down communion wafers.
- Exercise: Other than jumping out of the car, no. We don’t even see her in gym class in the school montage.
- Economic Activity: Lots of class resentment. Eventually she will get a job at a coffee shop.
- Enjoy: She and her mom share a good cry as they finish the audiobook of “Grapes of Wrath”. She and her friend giggle and talk about masturbation.
- Emulate: She and her friend look at models in a magazine and say, “Why can’t I look like that.” They imagine what life would be like if they lived in a nice house. They say of a classmate: “She’s so pretty, her skin is luminous, we should try tanning.”
- She will later ignore her coffeeshop customers to hit on one guy and comfort another.
- Just the opposite: She’s a little bit racist towards her adopted Latino brother.
Sunday, July 19, 2020
- He’s an asshole. He’s a merchant of death. He’s a trust fund baby. His womanizing has not aged well.
- He’s so disarming and relaxed in the back of the Hum-V that he feels real. (“I don’t want to see this on your MySpace page”) He has distinct metaphor family and attitudes. Later, I love that he’s listening to “Institutionalized” by Suicidal Tendencies (“I just wanted a Pepsi!”) while he’s working. He’s not a stereotype of a rich guy or engineer. He feels like you could have a beer with him.
- But we would despise him if his Hum-V caravan wasn’t blown up by terrorists. Then a bomb with his own name on it explodes and his shirt fills up with blood. Then he wakes up in a cave where terrorists are seemingly making a blackmail video of him. Then he finds out that his weapons are being used on innocent people. He has a bad day.
- Everyone is amazed and intimidated by him. “You’ve been called the Da Vinci of our time.” He asks, “Feared or respected, is it too much to ask for both?”, and he does get both.
- The ultimate bad-ass shorthand: Cool guys don’t look at explosions. Yes, I will share the video again:
- Eat: He’s drinking alcohol.
- Exercise: Not really.
- Economic Activity: He’s closing a big sale when we first meet him.
- Enjoy: He’s very much enjoying himself, no matter what he does.
- Emulate: He’s emulating his father a bit, but also refusing to do so.
- He doesn’t show up to get a business award because he’s playing in a casino instead. Then he gives the award away to a casino girl.
- A black guy says that Tony is his friend and mentor (but it’s a fully-realized character, so it’s not bad.)
Saturday, July 18, 2020
So how are we doing? Are these interesting? Is there a book here? I think it’s time soon for a round-up piece halfway through the alphabet where I start sifting this data and thinking about how to turn this into an interesting book. And I think maybe we need to add some more categories to look for in every movie. More on that soon...
- By design, the movie never wants us to fully identify with Dix (a name that is not coincidental.) The movie wants us to be unsure if we should empathize with an unjustly accused man, or skeptical of a possibly guilty man.
- Dix may be a downer, but his personality nevertheless sparkles: The girl at the bar complains that he never picks up the phone when she calls: “Don’t you like to talk anymore?” “Not to people who have my number.” Later, she says, suggestively, “Remember how I used to read to you?” He responds, “Since then I’ve learned to read by myself.”
- When we first meet Dix, a kid asks for his autograph, only to be told by a friend, “Don’t bother, he’s nobody.” Dix says, “She’s right.” He’s down and out.
- We empathize with his panic when the hat check girl in his apartment cries out “Help! Help!” while reading out the plot of the novel.
- And of course, there’s nothing that makes us care more than seeing a character falsely arrested …if it is false.
- He’s not famous enough for the kid to appreciate his autograph, but most people know and respect him, including the woman in the next car over at a stoplight.
- He’s the only one who’s kind to the old, drunken actor, so we feel we can trust him.
- We agree with him about his disdain for the book and Mildred. We admire his wit.
- Eat: He has a drink with friends. He eats eggs at home
- Exercise: Not really. Hops out of his car to start a road-rage fist-fight.
- Economic Activity: He’s considering taking on a screenwriting job.
- Enjoy: He’s amused by his own wit, but he doesn’t enjoy much.
- Emulate: He’s supposed to emulate more successful writers, but he refuses.
- “I won’t work on something I don’t like.” “Are you in any position to be choosy?” He sneers back: “You know what you are, you’re a popcorn salesman.”
Tuesday, July 14, 2020
this great video. It’s well worth your time! But if you don’t have 90 minutes to spare, we do sum it up in the podcast before we discuss it.
Saturday, July 11, 2020
- It’s always tricky to establish your hero as a lovable underdog without them tipping over in the territory of being an unlovable loser. Hiccup is right on that line when we first meet him. He’s very puny, especially compared to the Vikings all around him. He’s got a squeaky voice. Everyone pities him. “You can’t lift a hammer, you can’t swing an axe,” they tell him.
- The level of detail in this world is stunning right away, both in terms of the visuals and the narrative world-building. We begin with a paradox: “My village has been here for seven generations but every single building is new.” Then we find out why: Dragons burn it down regularly. The strange mix of Scottish and Norse culture feels new.
- They hired Roger Deakins to help “light” the movie because they were tired of overlit CGI movies. Right away, we’re thinking, “Oh, this feels more real than a PIXAR movie.” iii. He was given a hideous name so he could frighten off gnomes and trolls, which is a unique detail.
- Dragons are trying to kill him and everyone else. Everybody yells at him to get back inside. His father doesn’t approve of him, to put it mildly. His boss tells him “You need to stop all this.” “You just pointed to all of me.” “Yes, that’s it, stop being all of you.” He can’t get a date with the girl he likes.
- So just when we’re saying, “I can’t invest in this loser,” he uses his inventing skills to bring down the most feared dragon of all, the Night Fury. No one’s ever done that before. Now we love him.
- Eat: No
- Exercise: He’s running around when we first see him, then hauls his equipment to the edge of town.
- Economic Activity: He’s working his job which he’s clearly good at. “I’ve been his apprentice ever since I was little …well, littler.”
- Enjoy: Not really.
- Emulate: “You are many things, but a dragon killer isn’t one of them.” “I just wanna be one of you guys.”
- He’s ordered not to leave his job (“Stay. Put. There.”) but runs out as soon as they’re not watching him to go down a dragon.
- …but then, once he’s downed a dragon, earning himself the job he’s always wanted, he rises above that job as well, and decides that they should all make peace with the dragons.
Thursday, July 09, 2020
Why it might be hard to identify with Mickey:
- He’s quiet and downcast. Dicky steals every scene from him. He has a daughter he’s not raising.
- Once again, the least likeable aspect is the most believable: that daughter that lives with her mom and stepfather. Also, the complex story of Mickey’s sisters and brother and their two dads makes us rightly say, “Nobody would make that up.” We know it’s a true story (they mix in real footage) and including confusing or alienating details like those reassure us that it’s not simplifying or prettifying it. And, of course, Wahlberg makes a very convincing citizen of Massachusetts.
- We begin with a universal situation: Mickey does all the road work while his brother goofs around and tries to pick a pretend fistfight. The next day, he has to wait around while his brother stands him up. When Mickey tries to pick up Charlene, she dismissively says, “I heard you were a stepping stone, the guy they use against the other fighters to move the other fighters up.” When Mickey tells his daughter he’s going to win his upcoming fight, his ex-wife says, “It’s cruel to mislead your child, Mickey.”
- Mickey’s a bad ass (he beats up a patron disrespecting Charlene) but he’s a thinking man’s fighter: “Boxing’s a chess game, I’m gonna pick my punches to take him down.”
- Eat: They all go out drinking.
- Exercise: Very much so, he’s shadowboxing, walking all over town, punching a punching bag, and finally sparring in the ring.
- Economic Activity: He’s working raking gravel for the city and he’s got a prizefight coming up.
- Enjoy: He enjoys shadowboxing with his brother and drinking with his family (though he’s a little discontent in each situation.)
- Emulate: He’s expected to emulate his brother, who fought Sugar Ray Leonard, but he’s tired of emulating him.
- He lays down his rake to spar with his brother.
- Very much! It’s quickly made clear that the black people of Lowell love Mickey and Dicky, though we’ll never see them again.
Tuesday, July 07, 2020
- He’s a depressed jerk, working a dead end job and deluded about his prospects for finding a better one.
- The mundane reality of a weatherman, standing in front of a blank blue screen, make it feel real. Odd regionalisms like blood sausage make the setting believable. Phil’s got distinct language: As Larry says, “Did he actually call himself ‘the talent’?”
- Just a bit, we agree with him that Rita’s perkiness is somewhat off-putting and identify with him for feeling like he wants something more out of life. We certainly share his exasperation with Needlenose Ned Ryerson. We identify with him when he steps in a puddle, all the more so because he was storming off in a huff when he did it.
- Even though he’s clearly not very happy, he’s also clearly a good entertaining weatherman, blowing on the map to make the clouds move, etc. His main prediction will turn out to be wrong, but we don’t know that yet.
- Eat: He refuses to eat with his co-workers, then refuses breakfast as hit B&B the next morning, complaining that there’s no espresso and cappuccino. Later in the movie, he will eat ravenously.
- Exercise: No. He walks around town a little.
- Economic Activity: He’s doing his job, trying to get a better job
- Enjoy: Not at all
- Emulate: Not that I can tell.
- Well, he wants a better job, but he’s not ready to rise above his current one. Later, he walks off the job, but that might be considered “sink below”, not rise above.
Monday, July 06, 2020
- He’s passive. This trip isn’t his idea. He lets his girl dismiss his fears and throw away his cigarette.
- Right away, with an opening scene recalling the murder of Trayvon Martin, we know we’re in for some Real Like National Pain. This is going to gutpunch us.
- Chris doesn’t have a lot of personality, but his photographs give us a world into his soul, making him feel real. The fact that his dog has IBS feels real, as do the details of Rod working at the TSA.
- When we first see him, he nicks himself shaving, foreshadowing bloodletting to come. Then, having the seen the introductory scene (and the title), we’re already screaming “Get Out” to Chris as his girlfriend dismisses his concerns about being chased away with a shotgun. We’ve all been gaslit by our significant others, from time to time.
- We don’t invest in Chris very much, because he’s a pretty weak guy, but it keeps coming up that his most valuable quality is his eyes, and we like good eyes. And we like that he’s wary, even though he chooses to ignore his own wariness. We admire that he checks on the deer to see if it’s suffering.
- Eat: Rose brings pastries, but we don’t get to see them eat them. We do see them eat soon after arriving upstate.
- Exercise: No
- Economic Activity: Not much with Chris and Rose. We do see Rod at work.
- Enjoy: He semi-enjoys hanging out with his girlfriend, but he’s already in the sunken place, half-present and half watching himself and Rose from afar with a wary eye. We like her when she says of her dad and Obama, “He’s definitely going to want to talk to you about that and it will definitely fucking suck,” but he can only half-smile. She only fully wins him over when she stands up to the cop: “That was hot.” “I’m not going to let anyone fuck with my man.”
- Emulate: Well, Chris is busily code-switching when he’s talking to Rod and Rose at the same time, one on the phone and one in person. He “acts black” with one and “acts white” with the other, but the real him is too sunken to be fully either.
- He is a black guy.
Sunday, July 05, 2020
- She has no skills. She’s very naïve. She doesn’t know how to take care of herself.
- Right away, as a small child, Anna is brimming with unique personality. She says, “The sky’s awake, so I’m awake!” with mock-theatricality.
- It’s a simple trick, but it usually works, Anna’s a klutz (She wrecks the cake) She’s very human (“Don’t know if I’m elated or gassy, but I’m somewhere in that zone.”) She wakes up looking like a mess. (We then skip over the scene where she presumably orders her servants to fix her hair.)
- Right away, Anna is almost killed, then her memories are taken from her, but we don’t really identify with those, because they’re not universal. But then her older sister shuts her out and won’t play with her anymore, and that’s a far more universal emotion many of us can identify with. Then, of course, her parents die, because it’s Disney. We also feel for her when she embarrasses herself with Hans: “you’re gorgeous—Wait, what?”
- We don’t invest in Anna very much. We adore her, we empathize with her failings, but she doesn’t seem like someone who we can trust to solve this problem. Her only secret weapon is love. When she trudges off into the snow after her sister, we believe that she would do it, because we know how much she loves her sister, but we’re also saying, “Her? She’s our hero? She’s not up to this.” Luckily she quickly finds allies.
- Eat: “I wanna stuff some chocolate in my face!”
- Exercise: Little Anna plays energetically with sister. Older Anna rides her bike around the house.
- Economic Activity: We begin with men engaged in the hard work of buying and selling ice, and we’ll soon meet a grown up ice dealer. Even the queen must deal with trade agreements.
- Enjoy: Anna very much enjoys playing with her sister.
- Emulate: Anna plays with dolls and emulates women in paintings
- Well, when we talked about this on the blog, I defined it as “rising above mundane circumstances”, and Anna does that, though she never really endangers her job.
Friday, July 03, 2020
- As we discussed in our most recent podcast, he plays his cards close to his chest. We’re not even sure he’s a good guy.
- …but that makes him more believable (We’re finding this, aren’t we? The things that make a character believable are often potentially off-putting if not balanced out with Care and Invest.)
- Also as James and I discussed, we admire both his expertise with jewels, and his cool way of conveying that Lefty’s gem is fake: He examines it and then says, “Why don’t you give it to your wife…You should give it to someone who don’t know any better.”
- When Donnie finally calls his wife, and she’s gotta go back to sleep, he says, “Put the phone on your pillow, I wanna listen to you breathe”, which is a painful way of saying “I miss you” that we’ve never heard before.
- The details of the mafia world are fascinating and convincing (The difference between “friend of mine” and “friend of ours”.)
- Because Donny, in the guise of an apprentice, is subtly dominating Lefty almost from the beginning, we don’t actually fear for him very much. We worry about him more when we see the damage this does to his marriage and family.
- We always love humiliating ironies, and it’s ironic when both the mafia and the FBI tell him at the same time that his mustache violates their regulations, but his wife tells him, “That was the only thing I liked about this job.”
- We always like watchful eyes, and the movie begins with a close-up of Donnie’s watchful eyes. He quickly proves himself to be a bad-ass, beating up the guy who gave Lefty the jewel. We admire how he manipulates Lefty. He tells the FBI: “I got him, I got my hooks in the guy.”
- Eat: Misses Christmas with his own family to eats Coq Au Vin with Lefty’s family.
- Exercise: All he does when he’s in his apartment is lift weights.
- Economic Activity: He’s pretending to be a jeweler while actually working for the FBI: He tells his wife, “You get the checks, don’t you?”
- Enjoy: Not at all, except listening to his wife breathe. He pretends to enjoy dinner with Lefty, but we’re never sure to what degree he’s just acting with Lefty.
- Emulate: Emulating Lefty every way he can.
- Not until the very end of the movie, when he half-heartedly tries to get Lefty to flee before he can get arrested, but even then he’s unwilling to break character, so he fails.
Thursday, July 02, 2020
Why it might be hard to identify with Mookie:
- He’s passive and sullen. Notably, Lee shows us Tina complaining about her son’s deadbeat father (“Your father ain’t no real father, he’s a bum”) without letting us know she’s talking about Mookie until halfway through, which would probably make him too hard to care about before we’d had some chance to bond with him.
- The number one word for this movie is vivid. Ernest Dickerson’s color palate is so vivid. The little details of life in NYC are so vivid. Everyone’s personality is so vivid. The dialogue throbs with life, from Senor Love Daddy’s patter to the corner men’s shit talk. (“If Mike Tyson dreams about whupping my ass, he’d better wake up and apologize.”)
- At Mookie’s job, Lee dissects the way power works in a way that feels very real, with the job of sweeping up being pushed down the ladder from Sal to Pino to Vito to Mookie to Da Mayor.
- My all-time favorite “Special Feature” moment involves an awkward moment between Danny Aiello and Giancarlo Esposito over Sal saying “American-Italians” instead of Italian-Americans. Lee was smart to take Aiello’s change, because it sounds much more specific to this character and therefore real.
- It’s the hottest day of the year and nobody’s air conditioning is working. Sal says, in reference to his agitation from the heat, “I’m gonna kill somebody today,” which turns out to be sort of true.
- Although Sal likes and pays Mookie, he also treats him like a slave in some ways: “There’s no free here, I’m the boss. No freedom, I’m the boss.” Mookie is humiliated when he’s told to kick his friend out of the pizza place (“Talk some brother talk to him”) for demanding pictures of black people be put on the walls. “I gotta work here, you’re fucking my shit up,” Mookie says, only to be told, “Stay black,” and we empathize with his humiliation.
- Mookie isn’t easy to invest in. The moment when we really decide we like him is when he comes out onto the street to walk to work, runs into some Jehovah’s Witnesses, and jauntily shouts “Hell no!” without breaking his stride. Other than that one negative encounter, we see that everybody else likes and respects Mookie, and he’s got a strong community backing him up. We see that he grapples a bit with Da Mayor’s advice, “Always do the right thing.”
- Eat: Never
- Exercise: He delivers the pizzas by foot.
- Economic Activity: He’s counting bills when we first see him. His motto is “Gotta get paid.”
- Enjoy: He enjoys talking with his sister in the first scene. It would be harder to identify with him if we didn’t see that.
- Emulate: He wears Jackie Robinson’s 42 jersey, and tries, like Robinson to absorb racism without reacting for most of the movie.
- He has to choose between his job and his friend and chooses his job. Sal says, “Mookie, want to get your friend out of here?” and he does so.
- He’s a black guy.