Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Go Figure.

I've been mulling over a couple-few of questions lately.

One has to do with the mystery of the three- (or four-) act structure of the feature film.

Namely, what happens in the middle? How does the middle relate to the beginning and ending?

Second, how do the chunks of the middle cohere? What's their logic? A series of unrelated problems? One problem's solution begets a new one? What?

Finally, these all connect back to the controlling idea, the vision of the universe that's explored, revealed, assumed, yet somehow also confirmed by the story.


Many observers claim that the middle of a feature film consists of a series of 'progressive complications,' efforts of the protagonist to achieve a goal, perhaps getting successively closer or trying a series of different tacks.

Each of these ideas has its problems.

If it's just the protagonist trying to accomplish something, and then doing it, as many claim, then it's more or less just a wish-fulfillment--and thus not very interesting.

More often it's the complication that gets successively deeper, not the protagonist's actions. That is: things tend to get a lot worse before they get any better.

And the logic of those actions in the middle tends not to be just 'more and more,' but one thing happens and that causes a new problem to open up.

The other issue that's been on my mind is the view of the universe one finds in feature films.

I've written before about 'everything that can go wrong does.'

Or another one would be 'God doesn't close a door but he opens a window.' A man tries to overcome a terrible disease. And he does. But he loses a child in a freak accident.

Maybe that's just the type of 'mixed' ending I prefer.

And seeing a number of student films recently, I realized that many films can be typified by the sentence 'the world isn't what you thought.' That is: within ordinary reality, someone discovers that the world follows different laws than she thought.

All these things come together in--of all things--The Incredible Shrinking Man. (I know: go figure.)

Not that it's the greatest movie ever. But as a B-movie, it embodies movie-ness with a certain clarity.

Namely, the protagonist is more or less minding his own business. He's not even doing anything 'wrong.' And some passing radioactive something-or-other causes his strange condition of shrinking.

The world changes. In an unusual and thus watchable sort of way.

This opens up a series of adventures and challenges.

Some flow from the basic problem: he shrinks, so his clothes don't fit. He shrinks, so he's an object of curiosity.

Others follow from each other. He gets trapped in one situation, and the action that rescues him also tumbles him into another, worse situation. He escapes the cat, but only to be pinned down by the spider. That sort of thing.

The resolution is partly overcoming these obstacles. But the basic problem isn't solved at all! He's still tiny, tinier than ever--and getting ever more miniscule.

The 'resolution'--if it can even be called that--is that the new universe is the discovery. The problem is the solution. The positive spin on his terrible situation, the 'silver lining,' as it were, is that he's going to explore a brave new world: he'll become as small as atoms.

So even an old sci-fi B-film, even because of its simplicity and novelty, can show us a few things about how feature films work.

--E. R. O'Neill

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