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