Sunday, August 24, 2008

Complexity and Simplicity in The Third Man.

Graham Greene was kind of a clever guy.

The Third Man was on cable the other night, and I shouldn't start, because I'm always sucked in. Looking at the movie a bit, there's little wonder. It's a tidy piece of work strung together from familiar ideas in a nice combination that ratchets up the complexity of the whole and still manages to surprise us at the end--all while preparing those surprises very nicely.

A naive American man (a writer of simplistic popular fiction) goes to morally ambiguous and complex war-torn Vienna to work on a project with an old friend.

The American finds the friend is dead. That pretty much begins Act II.

Notice how little we know. There's very little 'exposition'--because the American must discover everything, and we'll discover it too, but in dribs and drabs.

We know little about the dead friend. We'll hear a lot: this also provides tremendous build-up.

Through odd behavior and inconcistencies, the friend begins to believe something fishy is going on--that the friend did not die in an accident but was rather murdered.

At the same time, American falls in love with his dead friend's girlfriend.

So now we have two things going on: a kind of amateur murder investigation, and a would-be love story, a romantic triangle with a dead man.

About halfway through, the American discovers his dead friend was not so nice. He'd been told this a lot before, but a lot of characters make post-war Vienna seem like a place where nice honest people don't get too far. But the dead friend wasn't just a rascal: he was a really bad person.

All this information was neatly withheld--because if the American were searching for a really terrible, we wouldn't care very much. If the American is "searching for a friend" or "trying to discover who murdered his friend," we kind of understand that.

At this point, the American decides his friend is 'better off' dead: the deserved what he got.

He plans to go back to the U.S. He's wiser now. He confesses his crush to the girl, but nothing can come of it, since she's still pretty much in love with the dead guy, worthy or not.

At this point, the murder investigation is moot--it doesn't matter what happened to the dead friend, he deserved what he got, it wasn't unjust--and the romance is moot, too.

The movie's over. Right? Not quite.

Now--spoiler alert for those who haven't seen the movie--it turns out the dead friend isn't dead. Talk about a twist.

As with most clever movies with a mystery and/or a twist, there is always a false hypothesis. The American doesn't think "I bet my friend is really alive and only pretending to be dead." He thinks "something's fishy--maybe it was murder." He's right about the fishy part, wrong about the murder part.

The logic of the actions is clever, too. This one change changes the actions, flips them all around.

It's now incumbent upon the American to kill his best friend. If not to kill him, at least to cause him to be arrested and punished.

The goal went from find the friend to find what happened to the friend and romance the dead friend's girl to right the friend's wrongs by making him pay.

It's a bit turning on a dime, but it's very powerful.

Notice how little bits of familiar stories are piled on top of each other. Are the individual elements so strange? Innocent American in corrupt old Europe. Friend investigating his friend's murder. Romantic triangle. Woman mourning for her lover, relying on the mercy of strangers. The 'cop' (here a soldier) sick of meddling amateurs. (That one's in just about every detective story.) They're all trite!

But the combination enriches them, and let's face it: you hadn't seen them in post-War occupied Vienna before. (No one had.)

There's more to this reversal. In a strange and somewhat happy coincidence, the American is still nursing a crush on the friend's girlfriend, so we get a more conventional angle: the American would be better off if his friend really were out of the way. If he can kill or lock up his former best friend, the American still might get the girl after all!

The American cooperates--collaborates, one might say--with the police. (They were antagonists all along, not believing his silly theories, finding him hopelessly unwise. So that's another big reversal.) The American tries to rescue the girl he loves, to send her away, but to no avail. (If she left the plot, there would be less emotional complication for the American.)

And he tries to trap the old friend. But the girl shows up--talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That kind of bad luck is necessary in movies.

A chase ensues. The 'friend' would be happy to kill the American (who's now betrayed him). He really isn't so nice!

The friend shoots a nice soldier who liked the American's books. This causes the American to take his gun and go after his former best friend.

The friend is wounded. But an exchange of looks between the American and his wounded friend suggests that the friend asks to be killed.

So even when we might expect the vengeance plot, we get first betrayal and then helping.

The American stops one more time before leaving to try to romance the girl--to no avail.

It's a superb script. It's crammed with delightful, unique details. Most of the characters speak in anti-romantic ironies. (When the American observes that the mourning girl has smiled and asks her to smile again, she replies about that happiness that "there isn't enough for two smiles.")

And of course, the whole thing is beautifully photographed and acted in Vienna.

But the layering of actions, the complications, the reversals, the looping back on itself, and the surprises, the combination of unity and surprise--that is all about fine screenwriting, the kind we can study and learn from.

--E. R. O'Neill

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Emotional Ambivalence.

I've written before about the mysteries of the three-act structure.

I just noticed yet another screenwriting book proposing a 19th-century view of screenplay dramaturgy: incidents in a progressive, 'rising' action leading to a climax.

It's a nice idea, but it doesn't really work for Hollywood movies.

What I've argued instead is that the big, bulky middle of a Hollywood movie constitutes 'another world,' a world that's different from the ordinary problem-filled world of the first act.

The second act has its own problems, but they're problems that are set apart from those recognizable problems of everyday life.

That is: instead of set-up, action, resolution, it's: real problems; more interesting, movie-ish problems, resolution (or pseudo-resolution) to all the problems.

Life is such that we're emotionally ambivalent about it. There are things we'd like to change, but we can't or feel we can't, or we don't want to mess up the parts that we like.

The movie as an art form provides a zone within which we can explore bigger, more intense feelings, issues above and beyond everyday life, where we can act out, be challenged, experiment, do things we can't and probably shouldn't ordinarily do. We thereby stand to gain or lose more.

The characters make a choice that attempts to resolve life's problems. Those choices may succeed or fail. And then the question is how that success or failure carries over back into the realm of the everyday.

The Christopher Vogler hero's journey aficionado's have a sense of this by talking about how the hero goes on a journey, then returns home.

The art form of the feature film lets us go into a special place where we can resolve our emotional ambivalence by making a single strong emotional commitment, an act that threatens to decide the problems of life once and for all in a focused way.

This is an aesthetic quality of the feature film as a whole, and it's mirrored and embodied in the feature film's second act.

We're ambivalent about life, and movies recognize this and give us a space for imaginatively resolving that ambivalence. The issue is especially important to creative writers, who must resolve their ambivalence towards writing, towards what they're creating, in order to finish creating it.

And so it's perhaps no accident that the space in which creativity takes place is so often mirrored within movies. You have to go through that space to get a movie out at the far end, so the movie becomes an allegory of what it took to create it.

Read movies carefully and they contain a record of how they were created--and instructions for creating itself.

As I mentioned before, The Wizard of Oz is a good example of this view of three-act structure, and it's a good illustration of this theory of creativity and the fantasy space for resolving ambivalence that creativity requires.

Dorothy is unhappy at her Kansas home. A mean woman wants to take away her dog. Her aunt and uncle pay her no mind. And she gets insufficient attention from the three male hired hands.

She expresses a desire to go "over the rainbow." She's emotionally ambivalent, frozen in place. She can't do anything to change her world, but she can't leave it.

She does indeed decide to run away. But an astute carnival charlatan convinces her that her family loves and needs her, and so she returns home. She's going back to the same place with little change. Yes, she realizes she should honor her family obligations. But all the same problems still remain--the dog, the inattention, etc.

End of movie.

Not exactly.

Instead, a hurricane strikes and magically transports her to a magical wonderland "over the rainbow" where she meets helpers, has adventures, and tries to get back home to Kansas.

This is the special, more-interesting-than-everyday-life, other world, within which she can resolve her emotional ambivalence towards life in Kansas.

On the one hand, being far from home in a strange place makes her value Kansas more.

On the other hand, she can do things in Oz that are really more interesting and dramatic than anything that was going to happen to her in Kansas.

And these adventures have little to do with the original problems. No sorting out the Toto problem, no increased attention from her aunt and uncle. Yes, the people in Oz mirror some of those in Kansas, so she's symbolically working out her problem. Oz is, after all, a kind of dream space.

But the interesting narrative-structural (as opposed to psychological) feature is: none of the adventures actually cause her to be able to return home. She gets to Oz but isn't helped there. She's sent to get the witch's broom. Which she does, but that doesn't help either.

Not even the balloon someone fashions for her takes her home and resolves the getting-home-problem.

Instead, Dorothy must recognize what she's learned, must recognize something about how her feelings have been clarified by her adventures.

Only this recognition brings about the resolution--the return to Kansas, where, it turns out, no one really believes her. (Things have changed a lot.)

The trick of the movie is: none of the real problems in Kansas have exactly been changed. Sure, people are crowded around her bed ooh-ing and ahhh-ing and fretting over her.

We never find out if Toto has ceased to be canine non grata. Presumably the witch-y neighbor still hates Dorothy's dog. And soon everything will go back to the way it was.

But Dorothy herself has changed in how she views and feels about these things. In losing them and struggling to get them back and seeing them from a different perspective (as fantasy figures), she has a different relationship to her ordinary reality. And she can accept it now, more or less as it is.

This is where movies about making a million dollars or saving the world are foolish: no one can really do that, so that really is a dream in the shallow sense.

We few of us can change the world. But we can resolve our feelings through it by imaginative and dramatic means. And that's what many movies do for us--quite blatantly at that, if you take the time to look.

--E. R. O'Neill