Saturday, March 7, 2009

What's a Good Ending?

It's kind of mysterious.

I've blogged before about various ways an ending might be 'right' or 'just' or 'apt.'  All these are probably part of a very individual sense of--'yes, that's a good ending, a good movie, a good story.'

Well today I saw the Met HD simulcast of Puccini's Madama Butterfly--that's just plain ol' Madame Butterfly to you.

Puccini was inspired by a stage version of the story which theatrical wunderkind David Belasco had put together.  

The story has been tugging heartstrings for a very long time, across the page, the stage, the opera house and the screen--so there must be something to it.

And it has a very interesting relationship between beginning and ending.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Compositional View of the Arts.

My sense of art forms is compositional:  artists select and arrange some substance.
  • For poets it's words.
  • For painters, it's paint.
  • For composers, it's musical notes.  
  • For choreographers, it's movement.
  • For dramatic writers:  it's actions.
As a screenwriter, you are selecting and arranging actions.

Sometimes people think:  I'm writing pages.  I'm describing what's seen on a screen.  I'm telling the camera where to move.


Or:  yes, but only later.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The New Non-Ending Ending

How times change.

Time was, Hollywood movie endings wrapped up pretty much everything pretty neatly.  We had an Ending.
  • The guy got the girl.
  • The bad guys were punished.
  • The good were rewarded and the guilty paid a price.
  • Noble characters erred, sacrificed, suffered and were rewarded.
But I think ambiguous or open-ended endings, even partially open-ended, started appearing in the 1950's--a kind of Weak Ending or Non-Ending.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Choice Among Fathers

Drama often involves decision, choice.

  • It's the terminal point of conflict--and the origin of consequences.
    • Two people are fighting over something--until one decides to give up.
    • Or someone decides to do something--and then all the consequences ensue.

One of the choices we sometimes see in feature films is: a choice among fathers.This is not biological fathers, as there's seldom a choice involved there.

It's more symbolic fathers or father-figures. But you could almost see the relation between the two as causal, not coincidental.

  • That is: no one has a choice over his biological father. It is who it is.
  • But we have a choice over whom we decide to pay attention to, to heed, to take moral guidance from, to model ourselves upon.
  • The latter is a choice, a moral choice: it usually shapes us morally, and we can be held responsible for it.

And terms like "choice" and "moral" and "responsible" are key in drama. (It seems obvious when you say it that way, but it's often overlooked.)

  • Drama is made up of actions.
  • Ethics and morality deal with the values that attach to actions--what is good or bad in the way of action.
  • So we experience drama through ethics:
    • We experience the actions we watch as bearing values: goodness, badness, well-timed, ill-timed, happy, unhappy, etc.

There's something compensatory here.

  • We don't have a choice who our biological father is.
  • So the choice among symbolic fathers makes up for the earlier lack of choice.
  • Our chosen father comes to take more weight than our actual father.

I'll mention Star Wars here, because it's a movie everyone knows, and because it's constantly used as a benchmark for discussing screenwriting.

  • You don't have to be terribly sharp to see the Star Wars series, especially the first three that were produced, as being about the choice of fathers.
  • Even the first film involves Luke deciding--though it's a forced decision--that the farmer who bosses him around is not to be preferred over the wise old Jedi knight in the long robe.
  • In the second of the two films made, there's a more important decision between father-figures--or between a father-figure and a father--but I won't belabor that, as it's probably obvious.

Recently I saw a film that's much less well-known than Star Wars but is pretty terrific. And like Star Wars, this less-well-known film is about the choice of fathers.

Prince of Foxes is a finely made historical film about the Borgias.

  • It's directed by Henry King, who was saluted in the silent film era as the successor to Griffith.
  • King ended up making tasteful, often historical or literary films for 20th Century Fox.
  • No one really called Henry King terrific or important after a certain point. But his films are quietly remarkable, and Prince of Foxes, based on fine source material, is like that.

In Prince of Foxes, a crafty young man is sent by greedy, murderous Cesare Borgia on a mission to seduce a beautiful young woman who's married to an old man. It seems like easy pickin's, as the crafty young man is played by Tyrone Power, and even a middle-aged Tyrone Power could probably seduce just about anybody.

It turns out the old man is not crafty but wise. And his wife loves him with a daughter's devotion. The crafty young man becomes entirely converted to admiring the old man--at the very same time he falls in love with the old man's wife.

On paper, the old man is the husband and the young woman the wife. But they're more like father and daughter.

And so the story cleverly switches.

  • Instead of a comedy about a doddering old husband being cuckolded by his young wife, it becomes more like a man falling in love with a young woman and wanting permission from the father--really falling in love with the woman and simultaneously coming to admire the daughter.

When the old man dies, in a sense, it's a wish come true: the young man gets the wife! But he's come to admire the old man greatly, and the old man, on his death bed, being no dummy, gives the wife's hand to the young man! It sounds creepy, but it's less so while watching the movie. (The difference between what happens and how we feel watching it happen is a very interesting aspect of movies--and somewhat a sign of the power of the story, as opposed to the bare events themselves.)

The point is: the young man is given a choice between two fathers.

  • He can continue working for the murderous, scheming, evil, power-hungry Cesare Borgia.
  • Or he can take arms against that powerful opponent, in essence betray him, and work for the wise and kind old man whom he had at first set out to betray.

It's a fine, richly emotional plot--all hinging on the choice between two fathers.

Once the choice is made, there are of course consequences, because "choice" and "consequence" go hand in hand.

  • Although morally superior, the battle against Cesare Borgia is not easy, and it is lost.
  • The crafty young man is punished for his betrayal.
  • But the young woman still loves him, and various friends and rivals still admire him and so help the defeated and injured young man to escape and to rise up and strike against the Borgia clan.

The assumption is that admirable behavior is admirable, and even scamps can admire goodness, so when push comes to shove, people may turn out to be on your side, even if you started out by being not-so-nice yourself.

We can find this unrealistic, but it's enough to move the film along. (This again shows something interesting about how movies justify their actions--which is rapidly and based on things the audience can recognize. Aristotle called those topoi.)

The young man has to take his lumps. Why?

  • It's a Hollywood movie, and he started as a bad guy, so he has to suffer a bit to be redeemed.
  • And now he's part of a young couple, and there's a ritual aspect (seen in Mozart's The Magic Flute) in which a young couple must go through a trial and be tested to be shown worthy.

The test-and-trial-to-be-shown-worthy bit goes back to the folk tale, and it shows how our moral intuitions--the "worthy" part--are tied up with story structure--trials and being tested.

In short:

  • Drama is made of actions, and actions are tied up with our moral intuitions.
  • The actions can be justified pretty rapidly if the audience recognizes the motivation.
  • Drama uses conflict and choice.
  • The logic of compensation--we had not control over A, so we fuss a lot over B, we did a poor job on X, so we try to do a better job on Y--plays a special role in fictions.
  • The choice amongst father-figures is one such compensatory symbolic structure. And it's a pretty potent one, however it's dressed up.

--E. R. O'Neill

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Public Dramaturgy.

Public life has its own dramaturgy: its actions call for sentiments, investments, moral responses.

Roland Burris took his Illinois Senate Seat as a wronged man.

A governor no one trusted appointed Burris. Burris seemed hopelessly tainted. A wiser man would have refused the job. (One already had.) But Burris, perhaps partly driven by vanity, took the job.

Then he would not be turned away. Senators wanted nothing to do with him: that was their mistake.

The spectacle of a black man turned away from a job to which he was legally appointed: that was too much.

The mighty, oh-so-moral Senate of the United States--the Democrats therein, really--yielded. Roland Burris became the 'junior' U. S. Senator from Illinois.

Now it appears Burris was not entirely forthcoming in some statements he made. He has recently recalled some more conversations he had about fundraising for the disgraced governor--conversations which, by an interesting coincidence, happen to have been recorded. Wonderful how recording refreshes the memory--even when not replayed.

Now Roland Burris is not a wronged man: he is a forgetful man, and our feelings towards him shift based on the actions he performed.

This is the dramaturgy of public life--or a tiny instance of it.

Roland Burris may have acted lawfully. He may be a completely innocent man.

But actions have appearances, and people respond to them--rightly or wrongly--based on moral notions.

Being turned away from your rightful place makes you an object of sympathy.

Withholding information which might discredit you makes you an object of suspicion.

And so it goes--and not just in Illinois.

--E. R. O'Neill

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy Endings--and Moral Intuitions.

What's a "satisfying" movie ending?

Of course, it depends on whom you talk to.
  • The happy ending is the most famous kind--but I think it's intriguing that almost every movie ending has some element of loss. Even Luke, who kind of saves the universe, loses his beloved mentor!
  • Sometimes Hollywood folk talk about "up" endings, "down" endings and "mixed" endings. (I think "up" and "down" are abbreviations for "upbeat" and "downbeat.")
One person's "perfect" ending is another's "wrong" ending.

But everyone can point to certain movies and say "for me, that is the perfect ending."

This ending can be described in various ways: "satisfying" is one.

The word "satisfying" is interesting. "Satisfying" what?

If we borrowed some Freudian terms, we could say that an ending satisfied the id, the superego, or the ego.
  • The id is the source of wishes, so the wishful happy ending satisfies the id: dreams come true, the protagonist gets what she wants.
  • The superego is our internal guardian of morality and rules, our sense of what's right and ideal. So when the guilty are punished and the bad rewarded, then the superego is satisfied.
  • If, by some neat trick, that also fulfills the protagonist's wishes, well that's some clever handiwork.
  • The ego is the compromiser: the ego negotiates the conflicting demands of the id and the superego. So the "mixed" ending which acknowledges reality and yet satisfies some of our wishes, that would be an ending satisfying to the ego.
This is a little different than up, down and mixed endings--because the moral dimension comes in.

The interaction between our moral intuitions and our cinematic pleasures is fascinating and under-discussed.

I blogged earlier about Norman Friedman's narrative theories. Friedman has the most complex moral vocabulary for thinking about how stories progress and end.

Friedman acknowledges that the audience has sheerly narrative expectations and also moral wishes.

On a sheerly narrative level, if a character buys a gun and practices shooting, we can expect he might fire at something besides a target.
  • If someone buys chocolates and flowers, we can expect he's going on a date.
But this is irrespective of whether these actions are good or bad, and whether we'd like them or not.

Expectations about events we'd like to see, Friedman calls "hopes," and expectations about events we don't want to see, he calls "fears."

And all these can be separate and complexly combined--like colors.
  • Thus we might watch a charming person prepare to do horrible things to someone stupid and doltish, and even if these things are wrong, we might not mind too much, and we might even enjoy it.
Thus the audience's pleasure in the progress of a story, including the ending, has layers of complexity in the moral judgments the audience makes and the kinds of pleasure they might like.

And my take on what Friedman is talking about would be: it's not about doing it the right way or getting the audience to feel x or y, it's often about asking the audience to explore their feelings.
The sophisticated writer says, in effect:
"So you like this person. Well how do you feel about him when he does this? Well how about now? Now do you like him? Okay, then he's punished--does that make you happy?"
Friedman's take on tragedy fits here.
  • A complex and admirable person makes a mistake that an ordinary person would not; he is then punished out of all proportion for that mistake, at great length, but rightly, so that we feel a mix of admiration, sympathy and despair.
  • Hamlet is smart and funny, but he's hung about his father's death in a way that goes out of all proportion. Then he all kinds of other terrible things happen on top of that--his father's death was murder, he has to set that right, his friends plot against him, his girlfriend goes nuts and kills herself--until he finally rights the wrongs but also dies trying.
Talk about complex moral intuitions!

Billy Wilder's films are among my favorites, and Wilder has a particular complex of moral intuitions and pleasures he favors.
  • Often a charming and admirable heel does stuff he shouldn't, and we both hope he'll get away with it and also enjoy seeing him punished. He then might well in the end get far more punishment than he deserves (Sunset Blvd.), or he might, through luck and pluck, finally get something good from life (The Apartment).
  • Thus, in Sunset Blvd., Joe Gillis is not a nice guy, but he's funny and charming. He suffers from lack of work, then he takes advantage of a batty old lady (not so nice), takes the old lady's money, becomes her boytoy, then steals his friend's girl. When he finally does something good and decides to leave the whole mess, the old broad kills him! He's punished just when he does something upright. (Ain't it always the way!)
To wrap up, stories can progress by playing upon the audience's wishes, hopes and fears for the audience, but also our moral intuitions about what's good and bad, upright and detestable, solid and lousy.

Good writers play these feelings like a violin--and they make "happy," "unhappy," "upbeat" and "downbeat" pretty much beside the point.

--E. R. O'Neill

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Do-Over--or Illogical Happy "Hollywood" Endings.

"Do I get a do-over?"

Apparently, the term kinda comes from golf, where it's a synonym for a "mulligan."

Most of us understand life as not having any do-over's.  (It's significant that in golf such do-over's are not part of the official rules.)

You can't go back.  Some opportunities only come around once.  Time only flows in one direction.  There are all kinds of ways of expressing this thought.

Yet it's surprising how many movies have do-over's.
  • Vertigo is a kind of a negative do-over, or a do-over with a bad outcome.
  • In Million Dollar Baby, the trainer gets to accept his loss of his daughter by accepting the loss of his surrogate daughter.
  • After not doing anything about Darth Vader and seeing Darth kill his mentor, Luke gets a chance to destroy Vader and all his henchmen.  
  • Groundhog Day is all about do-over's:  the guy's whole life becomes nothing but a do-over.
I'm sure examples could be multiplied.  

I have observed elswhere that the third act of a Hollywood movie is usually, strictly speaking and in the logic of whatever film it is, impossible.
  • Wall-E gets his memory erased--yet magically he still remembers Eve.
  • The Blade Runner could easily be killed by the powerful robot, but the robot relents, because he has become human in the end.  
  • Rick gets a chance to get Ilsa back and yet accepts willingly that life is a place in which he and Ilsa cannot be together.  
  • A Saint Louis family that must move to New York City in the era of the Saint Louis World's Fair discovers that this decision was not so irrevocable as all that.  
  • In Hidden Fortress, one general suddenly has a change of heart and releases his prisoners.
Most people would interpret these as lapses, failures in logic, a weakness in writing.

I don't believe this is the case.

Instead, I believe this sudden shift is a useful, almost necessary, and altogether pleasing part of the feature film structure.

First, you don't want the audience to know everything about the ending.  You want some element of surprise--and audiences want this too.

Hence a problem for screenwriters is:  be logical and make sense, but surprise them at the same time.  The movie's ending must be inevitable and yet surprising.  Talk about an impossible task.

But this is in a sense the audience's demand.  The audience makes conflicting demands on the filmmakers.  But--hey!--almost all of life involves conflicting demands.  Life isn't "logical" in the sense of being devoid of contradiction and conflict.  Life is full of conflict, and the more dramatic and messier it is, the more interesting. 

So the screenwriter must fulfill contradictory demands.  

I've written elsewhere about how the audience usually must be lead to the wrong expectation, so that the ending can be a surprise.

So a changeof heart or character or reality near a film's end is very useful.

Second, we all feel conflicted about reality.  We have a sense 'this is what reality is.'  But we're not entirely happy about it.  We know that dreams don't often come true--if ever.  But at some place inside ourselves, we still want it to be so.  We don't want reality to win.  We want wishes to win.

This is the origin of the audience's contradictory demands upon the filmmaker:  be logical and realistic, yet make me happy at the same time.  

Movies can either let reality win and disappoint us.

Or movies can let wishes win--and we will know they are false and fail to be affected powerfully by them.

If, however, a movie first lets reality win and then lets wishes win, the movie has things both ways.  The taste is bittersweet.  

The inverse would be:  let fantasy win, then destroy fantasy--too heartbreaking to contemplate, too real.  That's not a movie:  it's a bill coming due.

With the double ending, we are very pleased, because our sense of reality is satisfied, and our wishes are gratified, too.  Contradictory demands have been met.  

That's why this kind of aspect of the third act of a feature film is almost necessary--just not entirely so.

--E. R. O'Neill

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Life Life vs. Movie Life.

Recently I was half-watching The Devil Wears Prada on TV.   It is an enjoyable, well-enough-made film, certainly well-acted.  And I found it shed interesting light on some aspects of drama.

My acting teacher at Yale used to say:  Blanche Dubois can't settle for less.  People say to her:  Blanche, why don't you stop sleeping with young men, dreaming of your past, living in illusions?  But she can't.  Blanche is not "well-adjusted."

If Blanche were well-adjusted there would be no play, no drama!  And he wanted to say to us:  don't be entirely rational as an actor.  Have your whims.  Accept your strong likes and dislikes, your quirky desires.  Want things you can't have.  Life is more dramatic that way.  

Indeed, drama requires characters who are stubbornly wrong-headed.  It's a fine line between us enjoying watching them and detesting them.  And a lot of art probably comes in to disguise how wrong-headed they are.

We get a glimpse of this in The Devil Wears Prada.  

A young woman wants a career as a serious journalist.  The only thing she can get is being assistant to a haridan fashion editor.  Her father needles her:  she gave up Stanford Law School for this?

So this is the beginning of the first act--it happens quickly.  The young woman is desperate, seeks a change, so she accepts a solution she really should not accept.  If she did not do this, there would really be no movie!

Since I was only half-watching, I was not committed to her choice.  Perhaps her need was not made dramatically effective enough.  Perhaps it was me.  

At this point, I thought to myself:  Doesn't this girl know she could move to Providence or Sheboygen and work on a newspaper for a year or two in order to get enough experience?

But no--she wants to move to the Big City, start at the top, not work her way there.  She's greedy.  She wants a shortcut.  And she takes something that's glamorous rather than utilitarian.

Everything that follows is very much her own fault.  She wants the easy way.  And she just plain takes the wrong path.  

But that choice sets up the second act, with all its promising adventures that turn into problems more grave than not having a job as a serious journalist.

There's something about life here--an intuition, a sense of what life is like and how life is different from drama.  If this young woman did not want to have it both ways, she would have no adventure, and we wouldn't want to pay attention.  This is a pint-sized version of the tragic hero being punished for hubris:  the outcome isn't tragic, but there is a kind of moral punishment.  And we do have a sense that life demands choices, and that those who want to much ultimately pay, that Icarus flies too close to the sun and so must fall.

The young woman accepts the series of adventures.  At first she fails.  Then, in an interesting turn, someone essentially tells her that she's failed because she looks down on them.  This has the virtue of being true, and it turns the young woman around.  

In any case, the young woman transforms herself into a chic and somewhat cruel, competitive creature--exactly the embodiment of everything about the fashion world she doesn't like!  But we may well ignore this--if indeed we do--because the clothes are enjoyable to watch.  

The young woman loses her moral compass and her friends.  

When she then sees just how cruel the fashion world is--which was there all along--she finds it is too late:  she has become contaminated.  She is now just like the people she loathes--whom she loathed from the beginning, quite correctly, and whom she foolishly imitated in her wrong-headed quest to for the specter of success.

But it turns out not to be too late!  I notice that Hollywood movies often have this feature.  All doors close, and there is no way out.  Life, the films seem to insist, is crue and implacable.  There Is No Going Back.  Some Decisions Can't Be Unmade.  

And then the movie proves itself to be a movie and not life:  it gives us the magical world in which Life Is Life--cruel, implacable, at once obscure and transparently obvious--and then this gives way to Movie Life, in which we get just one more wish.  

The young woman gives up her job.  That is:  she re-ranks her values.  She decides that what seemed important was not.  She basically realizes what we might well have seen from the outset:  honey, you cannot get there from here.  If you want to be a serious writer, don't become the personal assistant to a dragon-lady fashion editor.  Seriously.

One can complain the movie is about a fool.  But foolish people exist, and we are all a little bit foolish at one point or another.

Probably the film could have made the fashion world more desirable from the get-go.  Or put in some other motive for taking the job which immediately vanishes--like working with a literary critic who then up and dies.  

 In the end, in looking for another finds her time in the fashion world was not wasted.  Which is again Movie Life.  Or maybe it's Life Life.  I'm not sure.

--E. R. O'Neill

Generic Movie Plot.

What Is a Bad Movie?

It sounds awful.  Why would anyone want to write a generic movie?

But people have a sense of what a movie is.

Just like we know what a poem is or what a car is.

We know what a generic movie is--a movie-in-general.

I hesitate to use the word "essence":  too much philosophical baggage.

And it's largely unconscious.  We're not aware of all of its features--the movie-ishness of the movie.

We're most aware of it when we see a bad movie--because one of the things bad movies are is insufficiently movie-ish.

Bad movies aren't movies that are bad:  they're things that are not enough like a movie--they're not-quite-movies.  (There is a philosophical point here, but let that pass for the time being.)

So when I see a bad movie, I might say:  there was no hope, there was no surprise.  Or:  I had no idea what was coming next.

We become aware of norms when they are violated.

So by reflection we can come to learn things about the movie form--or our expectations about it, anyway.

Your Generic Movie--and Mine.

So in my Generic Movie, there is some hope.  Things might go better for the characters--which implies things could go worse.

There is surprise--meaning we are lead to expect one thing and another happens 'out of the blue' (yet in retrospect logically).

We have expectations about what comes next, which can then be fulfilled or frustrated (as Kenneth Burke observed way back in the 1930's about all kinds of aesthetic forms).

Now one of my key points about learning to write movies is:  you need to develop this sense of what a movie is (a feature-length movie story).

How Do I Learn What a Movie Is?

One way could be:  see bad movies.  But that wouldn't be too much fun.

Another is to examine closely a movie you admire to find how it's put together.

One technique here is the hypothetical universe movie:   what if the movie were different?  What if the ending were different?  What if this happened and not that?

By asking and answering such questions, sure, you can say 'it's better the way they made it.'  But you can also get a sense of why this choice was better (usually) than the one's rejected.

For a long time, I've been taking apart Sunset Boulevard.   It's not your typical movie.  But it's quite good (I think).  It's quite odd--dark, bitter, as Wilder often is.  Yet humane in its own strange way.  

And I've learned so much from reading the script, reducing it to an outline, to many outlines.  I've learned too much for one blog post.

Generic Movie--Structure and Story.

But recently, I had two sudden perceptions about the Generic Movie Plot.

Really it's two perceptions:  one about Generic Movie Structure, and the other about the Generic Movie Story.

One is:  
A few interesting things unfold over time:  meaning they are not yet decided; the audience awaits the outcomes.

Maybe someone tries to do something.

But that one person's actions, adventures and choices depend upon and impact other chains of events.

Because of this, each separate set of actions becomes more interesting.

The audience waits to see how one thing will affect another.

Enough things are going on that the implications are unpredictable--unpredictable enough to be interesting rather than confusing.
That's it.

If any of these things are lacking--actions with undecided outcomes unfolding over time and affecting and being affected by other actions--then we're not interested.  Whatever else is the case, we will not feel this is "a movie."

Notice that this is purely about the structure--how events unfold and are related to each other.  It's the syntax or the grammar, not the content or semantics.

Six Verbs in Three Acts. 

The other Generic Movie Story is semantic:  it concerns what happens, not how it unfolds.

This is:

Someone hopes, risks, loses, changes, revalues, accepts life's consequences.

Act I is:  someone wants something she doesn't have.

Act II begins when she risks something--in the hopes of gaining.

Very quickly, she usually loses.  

At this point she's usually caught and needs to keep shoveling her way out.

Act II ends when the protagonist reassesses everything she'd thought before, re-prioritizes her values.  

When she is able to do this, she can cut the Gordian knot that holds her in place.
"I thought I wanted that, but I don't."  

Then the consequences of this decision unfold, and the protagonist accepts the consequences.

These can be okay, great or tragic, depending.

(Here we're back to syntax:  "consequences" are part of the syntax of actions, the way actions connect with other actions, events and experiences, aside from what those actions are.)
Don't Take My Word for It.

Usually, screenwriting books and blogs try to tell you "this is what a movie is."  

And they're quite often wrong.  How do I know?  Because when I look with my own yes, I can see:  that's not the way movies are put together.

So these are some ways I verbalize that understanding.  

In the end, yes, the theories and generalities don't matter.  What matters is getting a sense in your bones of "this is how movies are," and being able to work with that.

And, like so many things, it's probably something no one can tell you.  You have to find it out for yourself.  

--E. R. O'Neill

Monday, January 19, 2009

Clever Idea.

One fellow (who gives advice about screenwriting--and also write K-9) says:  take two weeks and read one script every day for two weeks.

A nice idea.

And he has a list of scripts with links (and two different versions, no less).

--E. R. O'Neill

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Rhetoric and the Screenplay: The Wrong Question.

Rhetoric Means Controlling the Question You're Answering.

There's a well-known thing in rhetoric.

You answer the question you want the other guy to answer--
because it's to your advantage to do so.

That is:  you don't let the other team pick the question.  You pick the question.

You talk about "how I'm going to lower taxes."  Then the other guy has to say how he's going to lower taxes--even if he thinks that's a terrible idea.
(Sometimes people even remark in debates when one person just answers a different question.  'What you're really asking is....?'  This is why.  It's not a question they want to answer.)  
So the team that controls the question controls the playing field, because it's the question you want to answer.

Make the Audience Dwell on the Wrong Question.

There's something similar in feature film screenplays.

The writer wants to control the questions in the audience's mind, the questions about how the story will unfold.  

More exactly:  you're never exactly posing the question that the plot will answer.  You must always force the audience to answer the wrong question.  If they know the right question, they would essentially know how the plot resolves, and so suspense is greatly diminished.

Star Wars doesn't start with "Will some team of misfits blow up the Death Star?"
No.  It starts with "Who will rescue the Princess?" and "Will Luke escape his family and grow up?"  
Then, with Luke's family conveniently killed, the question becomes "Can Luke and Obi Wan rescue the Princess?"

And then it becomes:  "--with the help of Han and the wookie?"

And they all do rescue the Princess.  

Which means the rest of the movie concerns another question:  "Can the Star Fleet fighters blow up the Death Star or not?  
And this question takes precedence over other questions, like "Is there a romance?  Will someone end up with the Princess?"  (I rememeber being totally puzzled about that when I first saw the movie.)
Every screenwriting manual is wrong about this, because every screenwriting manual is written as if the protagonist is given a problem which he solves at the movie's end.

Not so.

The protagonist starts with one problem, then gets another, then another.

The initial problem is almost never the one solved at the end--just as the question on the audience's mind almost never directly bears on the actual resolution of the story.

Sunset Boulevard and its Questions.

Or consider Sunset Boulevard (which I've been looking at quite a lot lately).  It poses a series of questions.
First the audience wonders:  Can Joe Gillis manage to keep his car?  Can he make it as a writer?  Can he even borrow $200?  Or will he instead be forced to crawl back to Dayton, OH where he bragged how he'd go to Hollywood and become a big shot?

Then--turning into Act II--Joe meets Norma Desmond, and she's rich, and she'll hire him to rewrite her thousand-page screenplay.

So now he's set, right?  The initial question is answered.  Except it's not.  It sort of is.  

But really it's replaced by another question, something like:  "What will become of the bargain between Joe and Norma?  Will they finish the screenplay?  Will it succeed in getting Norma's career back?"

We think probably no.

At the midpoint, then another question emerges.  Norma confesses her undying love for Joe, and she manipulates him into being her lover.

Now it's still "what will happen with Joe and Norma's screenplay?" but it's also "what will happen to this odd couple?"--really a variation on our earlier question.

The screenplay isn't sold, but Norma thinks it is.  And Joe starts writing and falling in love with someone (appropriately) named Betty.

Now we're down to a romantic triangle.  It's our same question of "what will happen to the Joe-and-Norma couple?" but it's more focused:  "Will Joe choose Norma or Betty?"  

And also:  "Will Norma ever realize that she's deluded?"
What of course happens--spoiler alert for everyone who's never seen Sunset Boulevard--is that Joe chooses neither.  He packs his bags and gets ready to go back to Dayton, Ohio--which he was so frightened of doing at the outset.  
This shows us Joe's changed.  He's less of a weasel.  Not so little of a weasel that he should get a nice girl like Betty.  But less of a weasel.  
Therefore, the question the audience is wondering about--and often it's posed explicitly by the characters to each other--is almost never the one the subsequent movie answers.  
We don't at all start wondering, "Will Joe be killed by a jealous lover?  Will an old lady become deluded out of her mind?"
Because if the audience knows the question, and it's a reasonably focused question, it only has so many answers, and there is little or no room for surprise--or really much pleasure.
This is a delicate balance, beause if the question is completey off-base, it seems like two or more separate movies.  But it's a risk that must be taken.

Suspense and Resolution in The Office 

There was a nice recent episode of a clever sitcom called The Office that worked like this, too.
Andy was engaged to Angela, but Angela was sleeping with Dwight.  

For weeks and weeks the suspense and humor revolved around:  "Will Andy ever find out?"  

Then Andy was told, and--like those cartoon characters who run off the cliff but don't know and so don't fall--Andy didn't realize he'd been told.  (It's a comedy:  real-life cluelessness can be exaggerated for 'comic effect.')  

Finally, someone tells Andy, and Andy and Dwight must face off.  The show constructed the question as "Who will win?  Who will end up with Angela?"
The resolution was a nice exposure and development of the characters.  (Spoiler alert--don't read on if you haven't seen the episode.)  We've been seeing Angela sleep with Dwight but not Andy.  It turns out she was sleeping with both.  
Both men thus lose respect for Angela--'okay she was lying to him but not to me!--and neither stays with her.
(There was a blues song by Little Milton some time back whose key line was "Hey Mister, your wife is cheating on us!")
Thus the resolution of the plot is never simply "what will happen?" The resolution of a plot always involves a rhetorical relationship to the audience in which the audience is forced to consider the wrong question and thereby given pleasure in a surprising resolution--which is really a reframing of the problem.  
And there's something of life in this framing of the wrong question.  
Because when we have a problem, and we can't see the solution, it's so often because the way we frame it prevents us from seeing another solution--which means seeing it as a different problem.

Why All This Sleight-of-Hand?

In a sense, there's no other satisfying way to do it.

You must give the audience the wrong questions to ponder.  You must give them first one question, then another, and change the issue every ten or twenty minutes.  

Why, you ask?  Why does one question give way to another like this in the feature film?

Very simply, because any more than twenty minutes is just too long for us to be curious about anything much.

I'm serious.  It doesn't matter how fascinating the people are.  We will get bored if the same issue is unresolved for too long.

Consider sporting events.
Yes a baseball or football game has one question:  "Will team A win?  Or will it be team B?"

But it's always smaller than that:  "Who will pull ahead?  Can that team come from behind?  Can this team expand its lead?"  


And if we wonder about these for too long--it's either a nail-biter or a yawn.

It's probably a nail-biter if one team has a very narrow lead and must hold it for a long, long time--because they could lose at any moment.  The question is very intense.  It's always very sharply in our minds.
And I would argue that this is one reason why Revolutionary Road is so awful.  
The question after the first five minutes is "Can these people ever be happy?"  or "Will this couple ever stop being so miserable?"

And then the movie really kicks off when they get the idea--'Yes, we could be happy, if only we lived in Paris!'  (No one's unhappy in Paris.  Are the characters idiots?  Or is it the movie that's idiotic?  Hard to say.)

Then it soon becomes clear:  these folks aren't going anywhere.

So then it's more like "How will they get out of going to Paris?  And what other kind of awful misery will then ensue?"

So it's really back to the original question--very quickly.

Which is why it seems like such a very long and very unhappy movie.  The couple is married--what?--six or eight years.  The movie feels twice that long--because we are not given different questions to wonder about.  
But reasonable people will disagree about which movie gives pleasure or fails to.  But the point of dramatic writers framing plot questions so as to mislead the audience--well I think this speaks for itself.

--E. R. O'Neill

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

My Problem Is Your Solution...

"Wouldn't it be nice if your problems were my solutions--and vice-versa?"

Is this really a line from a movie?  Or am I imagining it?  Strangers on a Train perhaps?

I feel like there's some movie where someone says almost exactly this.

For my online course, the other day I was outlining some structures in Sunset Boulevard

I realized that a very common structure is:  
  • one character has problems, 
  • and another character has problems, 
  • and together they find a single 'solution' for both problems.  
Joe needs a job and money.  Norma needs a screenplay.  Voila!  Hijinks ensue.

In Sunset Boulevard, Joe muses:  "here was a cozy set-up."  It's a nice line to describe the appeal of the purported 'solution.'

In fact, it's usually a terrible idea.  

But if it were a good idea, we wouldn't be interested in watching what happens next--since we often watch a movie not much differently than a rubbernecker at an accident.

How many movies have this structure?!
  • Leia needs to be rescued by a Jedi knight.  Luke needs to get off the farm and become a Jedi knight.  Voila!  Adventure ensues.
  • Tennis player has loathsome wife.  Psychotic loafer has loathsome father.  Psycho suggests they each kill the other's problem--but the tennis player doesn't really agree.  (Only unconsciously.)
  • You beat your son, hate your wife and drink, and we have an isolated hotel that needs a caretaker who won't murder his family and himself.  
The charm and richness comes in each problem in itself being banal, but the 'solution' of the two problems together is likely to be more unique and memorable.  

--E. R. O'Neill

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

What's it all about, Alfie?

What is life ALL ABOUT?

A big question.

And everyone has their own answer.

Often we can't say exactly what it is--but we know it when we see it.

Movies that affect us deeply often jibe with our sense of--gee, life is really like that.

Sometimes it's a sense of how life is that we'd rather weren't so.

I remember reading about the writers of the sitcom Roseanne trying to come up with one particular punchline.

Roseanne had to be skeptical that something good could really happen.

The line the writers eventually came up with was--"Yeah, and there's chocolate air."

Maybe not the funniest line on earth, but it captured the sense of--yeah, chocolate is the best thing in life, and wouldn't it be great if it were plentiful and calorie-free?

But that's a punchline.  And most punchlines don't go that deep.

Sometimes, when I think about how life turns out, I think about that old hymn "Simple Gifts."  Some of the lyrics are:

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,

'Tis the gift to come down where you ought to be....

And when we find ourselves in the place just right...

To turn, turn will be our delight,

Till by turning, turning we come round right.

That is: 

things happen,

and things happen,

and then things turn out a certain way,

and maybe it's not what you wanted,

and not what you expected,

and not what you tried to achieve--

but there it is.

And in a certain way, it's right.

Often we glimpse this sense of life by looking at the movie's ending.

What is Million Dollar Baby about?

"It's hard to let go"?

"Fight--and don't stop"?

"If you gotta go, go out slugging"? 

Or maybe it's:

The hardest fight is the one you don't want to fight.

But even then, you want someone who cares about you in your corner.

--Edward R. O'Neill

Saturday, January 3, 2009

What Is a Feature Film?

It's not an easy question to answer.

Ninety minutes--sure.  But why does it last that long?

We look at the finished story, and imagine it was, so to speak, born that way.

We imagine it didn't start out as a vague notion, that it was born fully formed--like that goddess born from the forehead of Jove.

It sounds like film criticism, but I believe that writers know what their stories are about.  And they're very clear about that--they need to be to write them. (I read recently that the author of Lord of the Flies said much the same.)

In a sense you need to start from--here's a movie you find interesting, why is it interesting?  

There must be reasons.

The head fake, that's one explanation for the middle of a feature film, the largest chunk, the "second act" (of three).  Life is one way, then something outrageous happens that takes life in a different direction.  But ultimately it merely sets the stage for a confrontation with the original reality.

Crisis exposing character--that's another way of thinking of it.  Someone finds exactly the kind of thing that's terrible for them.

Instead, most writers are writing short films--beginning, middle, end.  

But feature films are longer than that, so they have more complications.

A feature film is more like this.
Someone has a problem.  They find a solution--which turns out to be a worse problem.  Their problems get worse and worse, multiply. For everything that goes well, another problem sprouts up.  Finally, they find a way of making it all go away--though at a a cost.  And they return to the starting point to face the initial problem again.
That's feature format.
A writer needs a job.  He finds one.  But the lady is crazy and angry.  She moves him in.  He becomes her butt boy.  The film he writes for her will never be made.  He falls in love with someone else, and this makes the angry crazy lady real jealous.  The girl he loves is engaged to his best friend.  Finally, the only thing to do is be honest with the girl he loves, and pack up and leave town.  Which he begins to do.  But the crazy old lady shoots and kills him.  And SHE gets what she wants--cameras turning towards her.
THAT is three-act structure!  It could not be plainer.  

Yet it seldom comes easily.

--E. R. O'Neill