- Rick in Casablanca realizes, “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
- The heroine of The Babadook says to her husband’s ghost, “You’re trespassing in my house.”
- Ripley in Alien stops taking the company’s side and says to her remaining crew members, “We’ll blow it the fuck out into space. We have to stick together.”
- As with the false statement of philosophy, sometimes the corrected philosophy is stated by someone else and accepted by the hero: “Be a mensch,” in The Apartment, and “Use the force,” in Star Wars.
Usually, the hero begins with a false philosophy, then, about three-quarters of the way into the story, after a spiritual crisis, the hero adopts a corrected philosophy going into the final quarter, which will finally allow them to succeed.
Does that happen in this true story? On first glance yes, very much so. King begins the story with a philosophy that he should use illegal non-violent resistance to trigger on-camera violence by the Selma police, and thus move President Johnson to action. And at the ¾ point, King is leading the movement across the bridge only to be confronted by the police waiting for them, and lots of TV cameras. But then the police step aside, possibly to let them pass and possibly to set up an ambush. King stops anyway, takes a knee, prays, and decides to turn the whole march around and go home. Instead, King pursues the right to march in court, wins, and then Johnson agrees to support the support voting rights after all before the new march can happen.
She shoots the reversal as a questionable choice at the time. The audience is just as shocked and disappointed as his (literal) followers. Even after they win in the courts and complete the march triumphantly, DuVernay never really signals to us that this was the right choice. We’re never sure that King couldn’t have and shouldn’t have won by continuing that second march.
On a larger level, King’s critics within the movement are given strong voices in the movie. He comes to an understanding with one (John Lewis), but not with two others (Malcolm X and James Forman). The reversal seems to back up what they were saying, and their criticisms linger even after the victory.
Is King’s tendency to miss out on the all the violence in the campaign a personal flaw, or a coincidence? As I said last time, DuVernay invites us to ask this question, and doesn’t give us an answer.
This is also where the final song comes in, where Common raps about these events as well as more recent events in Ferguson. This song seems to implicitly ask, “Could King have accomplished more?” Do we still have such horrible problems today because King didn’t push hard enough? Because he didn’t leave behind a strong enough movement when he finally gave his life?
It took forever for a theatrically-released movie about King to be made, and it wound up arriving in an era where protests were turning more radical, inviting DuVernay to be more critical of King’s approach. King’s “corrected philosophy” and subsequent victory fit very neatly into my structure, but viewers don’t leave the theater sure it was correct, and that’s a strength of this morally complex film
The initial statement of philosophy is inherently ironic, because it’s wrong. The hero’s words to live by are ruining his life, or at least holding him back. But when the correct statement of philosophy arrives three-quarters of the way into the story, there’s a danger that it will seem preachy or lame, as if it’s “the moral of the story”. One way to get around this is to have the corrected statement of philosophy be delivered in an ironic way.
We’ve looked at two examples of this recently in sitcom pilots. In both cases, the sitcom was trying to maintain an “edgy” tone, and they didn’t want to break that for a moment of sentiment, so they found a way to deliver the true statement or philosophy ironically:
- In the “Community” pilot, Jeff is delivering a disingenuous speech in order to break up the study-group early so that he can seduce Britta. He doesn’t realize until halfway through that his bullshit is actually something he himself needs to hear.
- In the “Modern Family” pilot, it sounds as if Jay is delivering a heartfelt summation of the episode in a voiceover, but then we cut to him and he’s reading his stepson’s ludicrous love-letter, shaking his head in derision the whole time.
- “Here I go again on my own! Goin’ down the only road I’ve ever known! Like a drifter I was born to walk alone! ‘Cause I made up my mind! I ain’t wastin’ no more time! So here I go again!”
The most fundamental dilemma in storytelling (or life) is individualism vs. solidarity. Every battle that tears America apart, culturally, economically, and politically, is fueled by that irresolvable dilemma. In this scene, Micky and Dicky finally solve their conflict by embracing a paradox.
The 40 Year Old Virgin
NO, he retreats to his previous personality flaw.
YES. “We’ll blow it the fuck out into space. We have to stick together.”
YES. Reacting to teacher’s place, “I’d love to live someplace like this…That’s all you need, isn’t it?”
YES. To her husband’s ghost: “You’re trespassing in my house.”
YES. He must bring the workers and townspeople together.
NO. Not really: he remains conflicted throughout. When Detective Williams says “You’re all through with this now?” he responds “Yes sir, I sure am,” but he continues investigating. Later, he says to Sandy, while holding Dorothy, “Forgive me, I love you.”
The Bourne Identity
YES. “I don’t want to know who I am anymore.” He only cares about what he can become.
YES. “I’m not okay.” “Things are going to change but they’ll be better.”
YES. “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”
YES. When he asks Cross ”How much better can you eat?”, he’s also criticizing his own predatory work ethic earlier in the movie.
YES. “Fuck the rules.”
Do the Right Thing
YES. We can sense that the mayor’s words are now echoing in his head: Always do the right thing.
NO. You would think she would say something subtly showing that she’s coming around during her wedding speech, but her speech is unmemorable. (The closest thing she gets to a corrected statement of philosophy is her final line of the movie where she comes home and shouts “Ha!” using her grandma’s exercise mantra.)
YES. I want you both in my corner
YES. It’s a line from before that now gets interpreted correctly: “An act of love of love will thaw a frozen heart.”
YES. Kimble: Sort of: “I am trying to solve a puzzle here.” (aka I can’t trust in others to find the right answers and I need to rely on myself.) Also: “To see a friend” (aka evil is all around me and I’ve been too trusting.) Gerard: “That company is a monster.”
YES. After the ¾ point, he chooses to save himself. He discovers that the only way to save himself from slavery is to pick some cotton.
YES. Eventually: “No matter what happens tomorrow, or for the rest of my life, I’m happy now”
How to Train Your Dragon
YES. “It’s not the dragon I’m worried about.” “I’m not one of them”
In a Lonely Place
YES. “I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”
YES. “I’m going to find my weapons and destroy them. I’m not crazy, Pepper, I just finally know what I have to do, and I know in my heart that it’s right.”
YES. “She’s my best friend” “I’m sorry, I know I can lie and not be a good person but... Please, Mom, please I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you - I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, I’m ungrateful and I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry I wanted more...”
YES. “You were right and I was wrong. We got a family here and I’m gonna start acting responsibly.
YES. “I’m just a barber’s son.” About his plan for the aquarium (and therefore his crush on Ms. Cross): “I gave it to a friend.”
Sort of. He doesn’t frame it as changing his mind, but rather tries to explain his decision as a tactical retreat. But nobody really buys that he hasn’t reversed himself.
YES. Danny barely speaks, but he seems to have accepted that his dad must die.
YES. Before, actually: “This has been a big deal for me.” In this case, the further hardships cause him to regress, not progress, but the progress he’s already made finally pays off much later.
The Silence of the Lambs
YES. Quid pro quo: you have to make yourself vulnerable in order to understand evil.
YES. Not until the end: “Use the force”
YES. in telling her, “I’d take it in a second, but it’s a little too dressy for sitting behind a copy desk in Dayton, Ohio.”