I blogged earlier about the idea of a matrix: a configuration of elements that's repeated across a movie until the pieces fall into the 'right' configuration--at which point the movie can end.
- A C A C
- B D B D
- B A D C
- D C A B
- A B C D
This is a more nuanced idea than a formula, whether it comes from myth or genre, because the idea of a matrix implies a permutation of elements across an entire film, and this permutation is part of the writer's art--not something pre-given.
Thus the matrix may pre-exist a movie (and often does), but it's the manipulation of the matrix, the re-scrambling of its elements in a sequence to lead to a conclusion that is the key to the writer's craft, and not the simple use of pre-given elements, which we are all stuck with as long as we want someone to understand us.
A Matrix in Manpower (1941)
The 1941 Raoul Walsh-directed Warners melodrama Manpower is a nice test case. Even though 1941 was by no means "post-classical"--meaning: they were hardly 'done with genres'--the big studios cranked out so many films that they often needed to mix-and-match elements, innovate, yet also create a satisfying product. Manpower is one such product.
Manpower focuses on tough powerline workers--their daring doing's and misadventures with dames. It's a kind of adventure film that's got elements of crime and romance. The movie has more a complex matrix, but the most obvious part is very common: the nuclear family or heterosexual couple.
Edward G. Robinson is hot-headed and lead-footed: he fights, he can't dance, and the ladies don't go for him. But he's got a heart of gold. (I told you originality wasn't necessary to organize a film around a matrix.)
Rather than the gangster he usually plays, George Raft plays Robinsin's tough friend. He's a moral compass to Robinson, who always played characters who were a little bit 'off.' Raft balances out Robinson, and it's clear they could go along in the same way for a long time. They're a bit stuck.
Soon enough the pair stumbles across Marlene Dietrich--and that "changes everything," as we now say. Dietrich plays a b-girl: she gets men to pay for her over-priced and watered-down drinks at a dive joint where sometimes the men also lose their wallets (a 'clip joint,' as it was then called).
Dietrich's also the daughter of Robinson and Raft's dour German colleague. When Dietrich gets out of prison, Raft is there, and it's clear he doesn't think highly of her.
It turns out Raft's disdain and machismo turn Dietrich on: they don't just fight, they spark. (They were perverse at Warners in the 40's). But movies being what they are, it's Robinson, not Raft, who falls for and thereby redeems Dietrich.
Dietrich doesn't love Robinson, and she's honest about this. So the whole machinery of the plot is basically trying to get Dietrich away from Robinson and into the arms of Raft. The story pattern is: a mistake corrected. Dietrich makes the wrong match, and the movie must set that right, because of course movie characters can't stay in the 'wrong' marriage for longer than 80 minutes.
In terms of the joke I told earier, in Manpower, George Raft is the private, and Marlene Dietrich is the piece of paper. The 'right' situation is her in his arms, and at that point he can shout "That's it," and the movie can end. (It's so clear, that they don't even use any dialogue at the movie's end: the couple just walk together in a long shot with music covering their dialogue.)
The Matrix, Elaborated
The movie is a bit more complex, because the couple has another element--the woman's father or father-figure--and because male camaraderie is so important in the film. The powerline workers are fun-loving tough guys: they risk their necks and often wind up hurt or dead. They 'work hard and play hard.' (The use of a matrix to structure of story does not exclude the use of cliches: indeed, the way a matrix organizes other elements can also just be the unpacking of a cliche.)
Robinson, in fact, is injured early in the film in a work accident, and this is clearly supposed to be a sign, along with his temper, of a character flaw. Even though Dietrich is damaged goods, she apparently deserves better than a character the movie repeated calls a "gimp."
When Dietrich's father dies, this moves Robinson to marry her. This is framed more like him replacing the dead father, rather than becoming a romantic partner.
Thus the two additional elements of the "right couple" matrix are: men proving their worth through meeting dangerous challenges, and a father giving his daughter to a husband.
Not Exactly New
None of these matrices are new.
- 'And they lived happily ever after'? Not new.
- Men proving their worth through daring do must go back to medieval chivalry, if not cave men bringing home the bacon.
- Framing women as objects transferred between men--well, it's written right into the marriage ceremony, so how old is that?
Thus all of Manpower is basically a series of men proving their worth through daring do--electrical wire disasters and brawls--such that a woman can be given to the right man by a father of some sort. The whole movie is a series of the same elements searching for their final configuration.
The father's death transfers Dietrich to Robinson, but it's clearly not the 'right' configuration: there's no romantic love, and it's a father-substitute rather than a lover. (There seems to be no sex in the marriage: more than once we see Robinson waking up from a drunk, and Dietrich wide awake--and frustrated. Did I mention what dirty minds they had at Warners in the 40's?)
What must clearly happen is: the best friends must fight a battle such that the woman can be transferred from the father-husband to a husband-lover--from Robinson to Raft. And that's what happens.
So the movie is a series of male contests such that Robinson can become the father-figure who hands off and blesses the union of the more appropriate husband to form the new family unit.
The older man-younger man succession is also old: it's the Fisher King trope so much has been made of: an old father is symbolically powerful but literally impotent and so must be replaced with a younger and more fertile 'newer model.'
- Borrowing from anthropology, T. S. Eliot built his modernist epic "The Wasteland" around it.
- The trope is also nicely used in Prince of Foxes, which I blogged about a few years ago.
So if the ending of your script is not in fact some kind of re-arrangement of things which came earlier, you better think twice.
As to what makes some configurations more 'right' than others, it's hard to say.
If Manpower is exemplary, the matrix can be familiar, can even have a long history. All that matters is that one configuration seems more right than the others.
And when you find that 'more right' configuration, you and the audience can shout "That's it!"
--Edward R. O'Neill