Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Best of 2021: Not on the list: Power of the Dog (and Dune)

(Hi guys, I’m back! Sorry to only have MRC posts for so long! The fact of the matter is, I got a job that’s taken up a lot of time. I am working, believe it or not, for Meta on a game. They were big fans of my book, and trying to incorporate its lessons, until they finally said, “Hey, let’s just hire Matt.” It’s been a dream job, but it’s also been a lot of time and something had to give. Another issue is that James and I had a bit of a falling out, but we’ve made up now and we’re recording a new episode of The Secrets of Story Podcast on Friday! I will also be doing some posts based on some of the things I’m learning and one reason I haven’t been posting is that those keep getting moved back. In the meantime, it’s a little late to do my Best of 2021 list, which I usually do in the weeks before the Academy Awards. Since the Awards are on Sunday, I’ll do my “Not on the List” post today and my whole list tomorrow.)

Jane Campion and Kirsten Dunst are two of my favorite artists, and I was very glad to see them both working again, and getting some Academy love, but unfortunately I didn’t like Power of the Dog very much.

One big problem I had with this movie is that I just couldn’t follow what was going on, certainly not at the ending, but not even at the beginning. I paused the movie half an hour in and appealed to Betsy for help. She explained that, though his character calls hers by her first name, Dunst was playing Kodi Smit-McPhee’s mom.

I was baffled. Aren’t they the same age?

Well, it turns out that she’s just 14 year older than him. 
 This was the same problem with Dune, where Rebecca Ferguson played Timothee Chalamet’s mother despite the fact that she’s only 12 years older than him. Hollywood simply doesn’t know what to do with 40 year old women. They look at actresses like Dunst and Ferguson, and say, “Gee, I dunno, I guess you can play the 20-something leading man’s mom.” No, they should be playing the hero’s love interest! They aren’t old enough to be moms to grown men! Campion was lucky to get the cast she got, but she should have then said, “Well, obviously it makes no sense for you to be playing his mom, so we’ll rewrite the role so you’re his older sister that’s raising him.” Problem solved.

But my biggest problem with Power of the Dog was just that it felt dated. The whole “repressed gay villain” trope feels played out. And between this and Imitation Game, one gets the feeling that Benedict Cumberbatch has never considered the possibility that people may actually enjoy being gay sometimes.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Always have your characters call their mom and dad “Mom and Dad”

Or mother or father, or ma and pa, etc. This was a problem I ran into all the time when I was giving notes on kids books. The writer wanted to show that the kid’s relationship to their parents was unusual, so they had them call their parents by their first names. But here’s the thing you have to understand: It’s always going to be much harder than you think for your readers/viewers to get straight on everybody’s relationship. You’re dumping all these characters on their head, and you understand the relationships intimately, but your audience is always struggling to catch up. And we’re hardwired to say, “If they’re calling this character by their first name, that’s not their mother or father.” Overriding that wiring is hard, especially when there are other reasons to get confused, such as in Power of the Dog. Don’t do it. Help your audience get everything straight by having them call them mom and dad. (It’s much lamer to have them call their siblings “bro” and “sis”, but sometimes you have to resort to that, too!)


Joel W. said...

The academy awards haven't happened yet?(!) I just assumed I missed them.. Also happy belated New Year, Matt. And James too. Cool post. The new rule seems to be another riff on how a writer has to satisfy some expectations if other things are gonna be different, or potentially confusing. Can't violate too many things too fast. You have to help your audience enjoy your movie.

Not too insightful of a comment (haven't seen any movies lately), but better than those pesky bots right?

Matt Bird said...

Great to have a human commenter! Thanks for checking back every day all these months!

J Friday said...

So stoked about the new job, reconciliation between you and James, and the new podcast.

Fair point about calling a mom mom and a dad dad, and so on. So much to keep track of without confusion in basic relationships. I believe this could apply to objects as well, especially in fantasy and scifi novels.

It's cute when in portal 2, a sphere is called an "edgeless safety cube," but everything else in the game is called what it is (to my knowledge) and it works, so maybe use sparingly and when the effect is memorable or has meaning? Going with a game as an example here since you've gone all Meta on us and will possibly branch out in that direction!

Matt Bird said...

I am neck-deep in games! I look forward to doing some posts for this blog about writing and running games. Haven't played Portal, but I should be playing everything.

Dan Moynihan said...

Hi Matt,
I just learned about your podcast and blog earlier this year, and I have been digging in. I'm actually amazed by how many ideas you (and James) talk about that I have never thought about before. So thank you!
Just wanted to say something about The Power of the Dog. I found it to be fascinating, but only after the ending hit me. For most of the movie, I had no idea where the story was going, just a vague sense of dread. I wasn't thinking it was a great movie, but I was engaged enough to keep watching. It all snapped into focus for me in the final moments. When I saw Peter [spoiler, kind of] holding the rope with gloves on, and then he looked out the window at his mother, my mind went back to his opening voiceover: "What kind of man would I be if I did not take care of my mother? If I did not save her?" And I realized what he'd done. I was stunned! Suddenly, the whole movie was cast in a new light for me, and so many events took on new meaning. It's a story about two men, and the very different ways in which they try to live out what it means to be a man.