Saturday, March 7, 2009
Saturday, February 28, 2009
- 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.
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
- 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.
Sunday, February 22, 2009
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.
- 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
Thursday, February 12, 2009
- 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.")
- 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.
- If someone buys chocolates and flowers, we can expect he's going on a date.
- 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.
"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?"
- 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.
- 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!)
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
- 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.
- 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.
Saturday, February 7, 2009
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.
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.)
Monday, January 19, 2009
Saturday, January 17, 2009
(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.)
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.
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?"
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.
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.
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!")
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.
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?"Etc.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.
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.
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
- one character has problems,
- and another character has problems,
- and together they find a single 'solution' for both problems.
- 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.
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
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.
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