Everyone Has Reversals

Story Lessons, Big and Small (Warning: Spoilers!)

August 05, 2009

In Honour of Blake Snyder & His Pope

I watched Smart People a while back. Thought it was sometimes charming and sometimes impenetrable. Mainly because it was so hard to get what Sarah Jessica Parker saw in Dennis Quaid. (And I speak as a longtime Quaid fan, here. And as a girl who had many a crush on an English professor.)

There were, however, tons of great story lessons in the film. And to honour Blake Snyder, who died suddenly this week, I’d like to point out that Smart People was the first time I ever noticed the “Pope in the Pool” rule in action. Snyder coined the phrase to describe any scene in which exposition is delivered while something visually interesting is distracting us. Need the Pope to deliver some boring/talky lines? Have him do it while swimming.

In Smart People, there’s a moment when Ellen Page finds her uncle, Thomas Haden Church, and asks him why he’s not staying with the family anymore. The scene could have taken place pretty much anywhere. It’s just talk. But she finds him while he’s walking down the street stapling “Lose Weight Now – Ask Me How!” flyers to telephone poles.

I saw that, and thought a whole bunch of things at the same time. I thought: Hey, I’ve never seen the people behind flyers like that. I thought: Of course it’s people like this guy, doing this kind of work! I thought: Wow, that’s much more interesting than this scene could have been. I thought: That Blake Snyder is one smart dude.

R.I.P. Blake – thank you for your wisdom and humour.


August 04, 2009

The Heart Wants What It Can Get

While He's Just Not That Into You may be an ensemble, the story with the most screen time -- and the one that triggers a number of other plots -- is the romance between Ginnifer Goodwin and Justin Long. Ginnifer's the over-analyser; the girl who waits for the guy who's not going to call to call. Justin's the cynic -- the brutal truthteller who delivers dating lessons to our naif, including the titular one.

Ginnifer toughens up, develops a thick skin, learns to spot a blowoff... and then mistakes many of Justin's actions for romantic attention. He lashes out at her -- hasn't she learned anything? Stop looking for signs! Ginnifer's defense: she'd rather be overly analytical as she searches for true love, than cold-hearted like he is. Cue the reversal... he's about to realize he does, in fact, love her. This time, she's going to get her man!

But here's the thing.

Not once. Not ONCE. Does Ginnifer ever ask herself (nor does anyone ask her) if she's into him. The assumption the storyline makes is that Ginnifer is into whatever guy is into her. Her dream seems to be that someone -- anyone -- will want her.

So the person we've been led to believe is our hero -- the one that needs to grow and change -- isn't Ginnifer. It's Justin. It's the dude. Oh thank God, a DUDE is here to provide character depth! 'Cause Ginnifer in all her damaged mania is adorable just as she is. Let's reward her for all those charming neuroses!

I understand that, thematically, and for the sake of romance, it must be very tempting to turn the lesson of the title on its head, and make the big reversal about that. I just don't think Ginnifer's character needed to be sacrificed to make that happen. How about, she starts to fall for him because he's so unlike the other guys... and then starts seeing signs where there are none?

Then the big moment, when he discovers she has feelings for him, might actually have been heartbreakingly romantic rather than painfully awkward.

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March 02, 2009

Absolutely, For Sure

It's been months since I saw Definitely, Maybe. I knew I'd blog about it eventually, but it's taken me all this time to really articulate why I think it's a strong, fresh romantic comedy.

I thought -- is it because I like all 4 of the leads? Ryan Reynolds has grown on me a lot, but the real gems of the film are the women: Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz, and Isla Fisher? Great choices.

Then I thought, hmm, maybe it's all the wonderful grounding details in the story. Example: we spend part of the time in the '90s, while Ryan works on Clinton's presidential campaign. Hadn't seen that before, and yet it felt like a character detail rather than a hey-we're-travelling-in-time gimmick.

But no. I've realized what it is.

This is a romantic comedy structured around a mystery.

The premise: A single dad tells his young daughter about the 3 great loves of his life, and lets his daughter guess which one turned out to be her mother.

While I'm following these love stories -- all with their own nuances and complications -- I'm also, like the daughter, trying to put together the pieces of this puzzle. And I confess, I wasn't totally sure right up until the big reveal.

And the story doesn't even end with that reveal... that'd be too easy.

The fact is, this is where most romantic comedies fail. When non-rom-com-lovers refer to the genre, it's as "formulaic" and "predictable". This is because the central plot question is so often "Will this couple get/stay together?". It's almost always a gimme... of course they will!

Definitely, Maybe opts instead for a central question with real suspense. Which woman is mom?

How can any of us go back to the conventional faux-structure, now that we've seen this?

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December 30, 2008

The Surprise Payoff


Will the Circle of Being Be Unbroken?

A while back I saw 3:10 to Yuma. I tell you, if I'd participated in the making of this film, I would be very upset that it was nominated for a mere two Oscars (original score and sound mixing). You kidding me? This is easily one of the best films of 2007.

And here's the part that knocked my socks off: the protagonist, Dan (Christian Bale), offers up a third-act payoff to his back story that changes how the entire climax plays out... and yet it's a payoff we never saw coming. Never knew we needed until it was right there in front of us.

Got your 3-D Spoiler Glasses on?

Several times as Dan is trying to get Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) onto that 3:10 train to prison, we hear about Dan's wartime injury. There's clearly a sense of shame for Dan regarding the loss of his leg, but the cause for the shame seems self-evident: he was injured in the war and now feels like less of a man. Less able to care for his family now that he's home. We don't question Dan's back story or his shame at all -- it's simply what makes him so determined now to succeed.

It's not until Ben has Dan in a stranglehold that Dan volunteers the truth: in fact, his wartime injury is the result of fellow soldiers shooting at him as he tried to desert.

Talk about shame! Now it all becomes clear: Dan's determination is completely about redeeming himself, particularly in front of his son. It's not something he's choosing to do; it's something he must do.

Ben, upon hearing the story, allows himself to be shepherded to the train. Of course, it's a classic Western, so not everyone makes it to their happy ending... but Dan's story comes full circle as he's able to prove himself worthy in the eyes of his son.

A payoff we didn't even know we needed until it was right there upon us. Wow.

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December 28, 2008

Open Letter to "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (Remake)

Dear Mr. Earth Stood Still,

After recently seeing you in the theatre, I have some questions, and one note of sympathy, I'd like to express to you.

Question #1
: What exactly are you about? I understand that the aliens have come to destroy humanity because we are effing up our planet and the planet is, in the grand scheme of things, very valuable. Truth be told, when Klaatu states this as the reason for our impending destruction, I feel he had a good point. But at no time do any characters acknowledge this is a good point. Nor do any characters stage an argument about how we as people might change in order to 'save the planet'.

I understand Klaatu was apparently moved by human beings' capacity to love... but how does this change the problem of our destruction of the earth? Showing the capacity to love might be the antidote in a film about, say, cold war nuclear brinksmanship... but how does one woman hugging a child mitigate the whole "your society has ruined the planet" thing? Hugging and spraying CFCs into the atmosphere are not mutually exclusive.

Question #2
: Is your solution to our problem, as shown by the "happy ending", that we power down and go 'back to nature'? Does this seem a little -- I don't know, simplistic to you? 'Cause you know we're just going to go right back to burning coal, and that shit is nasty.

Question #3
: Did you consider at all that your message might be taken more seriously if it were more interesting? Less predictable and slow? Full of fewer cliches? Just an idea... what if the Nobel-winning physicist (or whatever) as played by John Cleese did not, in fact, argue that humans 'can change' -- as one would expect him to? What if he was the one voice that believed Klaatu's mission was just? Then perhaps there would have been -- just a thought -- an actual debate in you, rather than the (dull) unified assumption that humans are indeed awesome.

Question #4
: Did you ever, at any point, consider allowing some moments of humour? All the best movies -- whatever the genre -- have moments that make an audience smile. It's what makes us care. It has been a long time since I have seen such a humourless movie... did you think that because you were about something 'important' you had to be absolutely no fun? I assure you that humour is humanity, and your absence of one belies the absence of the other.

Note of sympathy
: I just wanted to say I'm sorry that it appears that not one person who was involved in your creation felt any passion. If they had, you might have had a chance.


A Viewer Upset Her Holiday Time was Wasted on You

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