In chapter eight, I’ll stress the importance of investing objects with meaning and giving characters “totem objects.” Once you invest objects with meaning, every time they’re handled or exchanged, a tremendous amount of meaning will move with them.
A dating scene should not be about whether he can call her sometime but about whether she’ll take his card. Words are just words. If you say someone can call you, it doesn’t mean much, but the physical act of accepting or rejecting a card is powerful.
- He doesn’t have to be as intentional. He can give her the card under a false pretext, with the understanding that she’ll get his true meaning (as in Bridesmaids, where the cop writes a mechanic’s number on the back of his card). This is part of the very realistic dance single people do to downplay their intentions (and it’s why I was hopelessly inept at being single).
- The look she gives the card will tell us far more than the look she gives the person doing the asking. People are guarded in their looks toward each other, but they reveal their true emotions when they look at objects, secure in the knowledge that the object isn’t looking back. What they don’t know, of course, is that the writer is there to register those looks that reveal their true feelings.
- In the end, she doesn’t have to say yes or no; she just has to accept the card, preferably without saying anything, because actions are always more powerful than words.
- The exchange of a card is physical. Something has changed hands. There is concrete evidence that this scene happened. Part of him has been accepted onto her person now. It’s intimate, in its own way.
- This card can carry meaning into future scenes. If she’s considering calling him, she can look at the card and then put it away. If she decides she’s done with him, she can throw it away. If she changes her mind again, she can fish it out of the trash.
Sometimes the exchange of the object provides the turning point in the scene: Take the diner scene in Groundhog Day in which Phil tries to convince Rita of his powers. It’s only when he gives her a slip of paper predicting exactly what Larry the cameraman is going to say that she’s finally convinced. He slides the paper to her facedown, she accepts it, listens to Larry, and then turns it over and sees that Phil is uncannily correct. Now it’s not just talk anymore; there’s physical evidence in her hand, so she is convinced and the scene is over.
Sometimes the exchange of an object merely provides subtext. In The Shining, while Jack is hallucinating that he’s attending a ball, a waiter spills a drink on him and invites him back to the restroom to clean off his jacket with a washcloth. Jack recognizes the man and accuses him of being the previous caretaker who chopped up his family. As he does so, he gets fed up and takes the man’s washcloth away to try to clean his own jacket. The waiter just smirks and says, “You’re the caretaker here. You’ve always been the caretaker here.” Jack throws the washcloth down, but it’s too late. He’s taken on the other man’s cleanup role, so now he’s the one who will try to chop up his own family.
- The fat white circles of dough lined the pan in rows. Once more Sethe touched a wet forefinger to the stove. She opened the oven door and slid the pan of biscuits in. As she raised up from the heat she felt Paul D behind her and his hands under her breasts. She straightened up and knew, but could not feel, that his cheek was pressing into the branches of her chokecherry tree.
I’ve written before, both here and in my book, about the value of placing scenes in kitchens. In this case we have a semi sex-scene in a kitchen, and because of the stove we already have a wet finger and rising heat before the man has crossed the room. The kitchen does half the work of getting characters where they want to go.
(And speaking of food, can we talk about how great the word “chokecherry” is? Sethe’s back has been whipped so badly that the scar tissue resembles a tree, but not just any generic tree, a very specific chokecherry tree. When Morrison encountered this word, you know she fell in love with it and cherished it until she found a devastating place to deploy it.)
At the end of the chapter, Sethe goes upstairs with Paul D, leaving her dejected daughter Denver downstairs:
- Now her mother was upstairs with the man who had gotten rid of the only other company she had. Denver dipped a bit of bread into the jelly. Slowly, methodically, miserably she ate it.
Denver isn’t just sitting there feeling miserable, she’s got some food in her hand and she’s eating it slowly, methodically, and miserably. The object allows Morrison to describe a state that is physically visible, instead of her inner turmoil. Seeing is believing. Behavior is better than internal description. Put objects in their hands.
- When Officer Hopps falls for the scam being run by Nick Wilde and his partner Finnick, Hopps naively puts a sticker-badge on Finnick, who is pretending to be a toddler.
- When Hopps extorts Nicks into working with her on his case, Finnick laughs at him and puts the sticker on him: “She hustled you good! You’re a cop now Nick, you’re gonna need one of these! Have fun working with the fuzz!”
- Later, when Hopps realizes that Nick has sabotaged the investigation, Nick sarcastically points to the sticker and says, “Madam, I have a fake badge. I would never impede your pretend investigation.”
- Later, Hopps has convinced Nick to apply to be a cop, but then offends him, causing him to throw away his application and rip the sticker off.
- Finally, after Nick graduates the academy, Hopps puts a real badge on him.
Rulebook Casefile: Using Objects to Make the Theme Quieter in the Master of None Pilot
But this show is a little more traditional than “Louie”, because Aziz Ansari’s comedy is more mainstream than Louie C.K’s. This will be a less abrasive show. In other words, it will have more learning and growing. But that’s tricky: How do you avoid the “Modern Family” problem, in which the characters end the sitcom by sitting down and telling us explicitly what this week’s theme was and what they’ve learned? How do you show that our hero has thought about everything he’s seen and learned a little bit about himself, without spelling it out ?
This show has a brilliant ending that quietly and humorously accomplishes this:
- Dev has dropped the kids back off with their mom when another friend brings over gourmet sandwiches. Just as they’re about to dig in, the kids come in the room: They’ve made their own sandwiches for everyone (peanut butter, lettuce and ketchup) and eagerly want everyone to eat them. Their loving mom announces that she’s going to eat their sandwich instead. Dev is clearly moved by the kids’ gesture of love, but decides to eat the gourmet sandwich instead, then tries to eat the mom’s gourmet sandwich as well, if she’s not going to touch it. Cut to credits.
- It’s funny.
- It’s something most of us have experienced, but for whatever reason we haven’t seen a lot of onscreen before. These are the sorts of moment you desperately need to find. It reminded me of real situations I’ve been in with both my own and other people’s kids, rather than other sitcom situations.
- It’s a genuinely painful dilemma! On the one hand, how could he say no to those adorable open-hearted kids, on the other hand, how could he eat that disgusting sandwich instead of the delicious-looking one?
The 40 Year Old Virgin
Andy goes home with a drunk woman from a Bachelorette party.
After the deaths of Kane, Brett and Dallas, Ripley becomes captain, so she has a meeting with the other survivors, Ash, Parker, and Lambert, to decide what to do next.
Jenny is amazed as David gets permission from her parents to take her on a weekend trip to Oxford by claiming to know C.S. Lewis.
Amelia chases her son Sam down to the basement, where he knocks her out, ties her up, and drives the Babadook out of her, temporarily.
Bart arrives in town, then takes himself hostage to save himself from hostile townspeople
Jeffrey spies on Dorothy and Frank, then Dorothy catches Jeffrey in her apartment and has sex with him at knifepoint.
The Bourne Identity
Jason and Marie are attacked at her family’s farm by the assassin known as The Professor. Jason blows up a propane tank to distract him and kills him, but as the Professor dies he convinces Jason to come back.
Annie is driving angry after feuding with Helen when she gets pulled over by a cute cop, who gives her his number under the pretense of recommending a place to get her tail light fixed.
Sketchy crook Ugarte asks cool club owner Rick to hold onto the letters of transit for him.
Jake confronts Noah Cross with the glasses
Lefty seeks to go behind Sonny Black’s back to set up his own meeting in Florida with Trifficante. He has Donnie borrow a boat for this purpose, but Sonny Black knows everything, and he crashes the party. Lefty bitterly assumes that Donnie has betrayed him, and shuns him. Sonny takes Donnie aside and elevates him above Lefty.
Do the Right Thing
Buggin’ Out notices that there are no brothers on the wall of Sal’s Pizzeria and decides to organize a boycott.
Billi finds out about Nai Nai’s diagnosis from her parents.
Micky and Charlene confront Micky’s family about his career.
Anna confront Elsa in her ice palace
Gerard confronts Kimble atop a dam, but Kimble leaps off.
Chris sneaks out for a smoke in the night, has creepy encounters with Georgina and Walter, then finds Missy drinking tea. She implores him to sit down, he repeats that he doesn’t want to be hypnotized, but she does it anyway with her teacup. She gets him to admit the facts of his mother’s death, then sends him to a “sunken place” in his mind.
Phil takes Rita to a cafe and tries to convince her that he’s living the same day over and over. He convinces her by predicting what Larry will say.
How to Train Your Dragon
Hiccup and his students are in an arena competing to defeat a dragon, but Hiccup is quizzing their instructor to find out how to better commune with his own dragon, Toothless. Along the way, he uses what he learned from Toothless to peacefully subdue the dragon they’re fighting, infuriating the others.
In a Lonely Place
Laurel has made secret plans to leave town, but Dix makes her go to his favorite restaurant to celebrate their engagement with his agent, his alcoholic friend, and others.
Tony has built a better chest-device to keep shrapnel out of his heart, so he calls Pepper in to reach into his chest and replace the old one with a new one.
Lady Bird flirts with Kyle in the parking lot.
During Hi and Ed’s first night with Junior, brothers Gale and Evelle show up having just escaped from jail, and begin to suspect the truth.
Max introduces himself to Ms. Cross on the bleachers.
King meets with Johnson in the Oval Office to try to get him to commit to a new Voting Rights Act
Jack finally takes a drink from the ghosts in the ballroom. A waiter spills a drink on him, and takes him to the bathroom to clean it off. While he does so, Jack realizes that the waiter is actually Grady, the former caretaker that killed his family. Grady encourages him to do the same, but Jack is uncertain.
Miles has struck out with Maya, but Jack comes back to the motel after a wild night with Steph, intending to go back out. Miles tries to get Jack to stay by forcing him to call his fiancé, but she doesn’t answer and Jack takes off with Steph after getting Miles to return his unused condom from the night before.
The Silence of the Lambs
Clarice first meets Lecter in his cell, under the pretense of getting him to fill out a questionnaire, but he quickly figures out that it’s really about Buffalo Bill, and that Clarice is hiding other things as well.
The gang takes over the Death Star command office.
Joe discovers Norma, who assumes that he’s there to plan her monkey’s funeral, but when he explains that he’s a screenwriter, she hires him to rewrite her screenplay for Salome instead.
So how do those scenes answer this question?
The 40 Year Old Virgin
YES. He blows into her breathalyzer, she throws up on him.
YES. Parker slams down Dallas’s flamethower to show that he’s dead. Later he goes to refill it, to show his decision.
NO. Not really, though he may have brought them the alcohol.
YES. Her exorcism takes the form of black bile she vomits out.
YES. The written speech, the banner that rolls up, then gets rolled back down. The guns that come out and go back. The bible is shot.
YES. she takes his wallet, then his ID, he takes her knife, she takes him in sexually.
The Bourne Identity
YES. Bullets are exchanged, then the professor’s stuff is taken.
YES. She gives him her license, which forms a bond, he tears up the ticket to show his affection, he gives her a card that doubles as giving her his number.
YES. the letters of transit are shown and then exchanged. Rick fingers chess pieces, Ugarte drinks and smokes.
YES. The obituary column represents the conspiracy, the glasses represent the murder. Each accusation becomes real and concrete when the object is presented.
YES. Sonny gives Lefty the matchbook to let him know that he knows. Lefty throws away his greeting card, but takes he hundred dollar bill out first.
Do the Right Thing
YES. Giving the pizza, refusing to take it, taking the parmesan, taking it away again, taking out the bat, Pino taking it away, etc.
NO. Not really. Alice has a business binder, but doesn’t offer a paper of the new deal to Micky, as we would expect. She smokes a cigarette, and smoke wafts onto everyone. Neither really counts
YES. Elsa’s anger becomes a monster, if we want to count that as an object.
YES. Gerard’s gun changes hands, transferring the upper hand and therefore the moral authority, but Kimble refuses to use it. Kimble takes off ambulance jacket to reveal janitor’s uniform (his hidden fear). Gerard opens his jacket to reveal another gun. (Don’t underestimate him.)
YES. He gives her a slip of paper that proves his point. It wouldn’t have felt undeniable to her if he had just said it, but now this is real proof in her hands.
How to Train Your Dragon
YES. Astrid’s ax gets disabled by Hiccup’s shield, which foreshadows the larger plot.
In a Lonely Place
YES. the ominous phone is handed around.
YES. His old heart, his new heart.
YES. A pen to write the number.
YES. Just barely: Evelle paws through their M&M’s while talking about going through the sewage.
YES. He gives her a light at the beginning.
YES. Johnson gives him coffee and King takes it but doesn’t drink it. Johnson tries to hand King a folder with the War on Poverty program but King doesn’t take it.
YES. the exchange of the towel, which parallels the dialogue about who the caretaker is (“You were the caretaker here.” “I’m sorry to differ with you, sir, but youare the caretaker.”), passing the mantle of family-killing.
YES. Jack gives Miles money to pay for golf as a way of paying him off abandoning him, then demands the condom back.
The Silence of the Lambs
YES. The questionnaire is violently shoved back and forth through the slot.
YES. Artoo physically access the plans, Han tries to put cuffs on Chewy, then hands them to Han, who puts them on Chewy, Luke hands Han a helmet to signal it’s time to go.
YES. he takes her script (which is her heart)