Everyone Has Reversals

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

October 28, 2005

You Had Me at "Fade In:"

Some films open with such a bang that we're compelled to keep watching no matter what... but what's more amazing is that sometimes that "bang" is also truly relevant. Some examples:

Sexy Beast
(yes, again) - The opening few minutes give us a visual introduction to Gal, his pool, his sunburn. And then a giant boulder rolls down the mountain behind his house and narrowly misses squashing our protagonist. It's an incredible opening... weird, funny, exciting. And it gives us a beautiful metaphor of what's to come. The giant, seemingly unstoppable boulder that is Ben Kingsley...

Talk to Her
(yeah, Almodovar's a little highbrow for this blog, but so what?) - We open on a modern dance performance in which two women appear to be sleepwalking. Which, as you may know, fits perfectly with the waking life/coma life thematic content of the story. Plus, the dance is gorgeous and strange and haunting... I dare you to not want more of it. Plus, the dance serves two plot functions-- our male protagonists are sitting next to each other watching this dance, and their contact there actually informs the way the story progresses. Second, our key coma victim is an admirer of these dancers, and is a dancer herself. This particular dance piece --this particular minute of film-- serves the world of the film, the theme, the story/plot, and its characters.

Lord of War
begins with the life-cycle of a bullet, from creation on the assembly line, to shipping, to being used to kill. It's a fast-paced, interesting, and shocking journey. And guess what? It pretty much sets up the heart of the film perfectly. Nicholas Cage is like a bullet. He's going to show us how he was created... the journey he's been on... and how, in the end, he may not be a killer himself, but is certainly used to kill others. (Nicholas Cage doesn't kill people... people kill people?)

A lot can be done in a minute. At least, in movies.

October 23, 2005

Lessons from the Incredibly Obvious File, #1

I waited too long to see Sexy Beast. I know, I know. There's a reason they call Ben Kingsley "Sir".

But the obvious lesson here isn't "cast a knighted actor". For me, the best "duh" lesson here is the heist story. The Gal character is, let's say, persuaded to perform "one last gig"-- a high-stakes heist. Yup, sounds familiar. The twist? They're breaking into the vault from below... underwater.

It sounds simple, but for the love of Ben Kingsley, if you're going to have a heist, make it interesting! Something we haven't seen before!
Keep in mind, the heist isn't even the central story, here. Ergo, the heists in actual heist movies had better up the ante from now on.

You take that under advisement, and I'll stop saying the word "heist".

October 19, 2005

I Know How You Feel

13 Going on 30
was destined to be compared to Big, and rightly so. The reason 13 works in its own right, is that it approaches the high-concept part of the concept from a totally different--and, some might say--more accessible angle.

The kid's motivations in Big were to be, well, big. To get bigger faster; to grow up. The rest of the film then deals with the central conceit of the kid adapting to life as an adult, without have gotten there naturally. There's a lot of stuff he just doesn't get, and there's a lot of stuff that's painful for him. Sometimes he just wants his mom. The tension comes from being physically an adult, but a child inside.

In 13, the young girl wants to be cool and popular. She dreams of the day when she's 30 and has her shit together. And when that instantly happens, of course, she too has some adult-but-thinks-like-a-kid moments. We'd be disappointed if she didn't. But the story actually focuses on a different central tension than Big... in 13, the key tension comes from the deep regret our girl feels about the decisions she made with she was 13 (and beyond). She's 30, she's hot, she's got a dream job... and she slowly realizes she doesn't like herself. She has to face that it was her own actions that made her this way.

No, I'm not going to argue against Big, here. It's a favourite. But the key tension--he's a kid in an adult's body--isn't one I can relate to. Jennifer Garner's regret-- that, I can relate to. Who hasn't gotten to 30 and thought about all the different paths their life could have taken? I think 13 Going on 30 did what it had to do: it took this concept and explored an entirely different theme, and a well-chosen theme at that.

The lesson? Think carefully about who's going to relate to your characters, and how. Remember, lots of people out there can't sit through an episode of The Office-- it's too painful.

October 10, 2005

Die, Protagonist, Die!

Right: German for "The, Protagonist, The". What's Deep Blue Sea in German?

Yes, I'm going to say there are valuable lessons in the "smart sharks" movie. Lots, I think (for writers, anyway). The one that interests me the most is the fact that the protagonist dies.

The Saffron Burrows character is in charge of the research station. She's also responsible for the fact that the research they're doing there is illegal. But she's passionate, because she believes in the cause-- a potential cure for Alzheimer's. That's a pretty good cause. And hey, she's only messing with sharks-- you don't see PETA getting up in arms over mistreatment of sharks. You don't see me getting up in arms either. So we're more or less with her as the movie gets going... until we see what she's created. And then the running and the hiding begins.

With the advent of gore comes Saffron's indecision. She knows she's made a boo-boo. But she doesn't want to leave behind her research and potential miracle cure, either. She even goes so far as to put herself in harm's way in order to save her findings. In a slightly lesser movie, this is where the protagonist would just be hunted down and torn apart by the cunning, angry sharks she created. This would be entirely fair. But it would be a simple irony-- a little cheap.

Instead, she makes it out alive. Without her research.
This is interesting because it allows the character to go a little further. The story gives her a chance. Her sharks destroyed her research, her life's work. But she's not suicidal about it, she's running for her life! Maybe she's even learned a lesson. (Making sharks smarter is a bad idea.) Maybe she'll even be a better person in the future. Then the story puts the pressure on even more-- a shark may very well get free, and start terrorizing quaint beachfront communities where children are playing innocently on air mattresses. And it'll be all her fault. Saffron, being a good protagonist, chooses to sacrifice herself for the safety of the other two survivors and to ensure the containment of the last shark. She redeems herself. Instead of the story punishing her, it allows her to punish herself-- ultimately, much more satisfying in my books. A decision to sacrifice yourself (especially when you, you know, would rather continue living) is pretty powerful.

We often hope for character redemption, or at least, an acknowledgement of one's misguided ways. But redemption doesn't always mean you get to live. Sometimes it's right to allow a character to do their thing, and then say goodbye.

Other effective protagonist deaths? American Beauty-- he did what he needed to do. Started out on the bottom and went out on top. Dangerous Liaisons-- same thing for the John Malkovich character. He is transformed by love before dying. While these deaths have terrible consequences for some of the people in these worlds, they're such redemptive moments for the protagonists that we actually feel a little... glad.

Let the massacre begin.

October 02, 2005

Surprise! Surprise! Sur... oh, forget it.

Prepare yourself for blasphemy. Mike Nichols, you are a god among men, but Closer sucked.

It sucked because it (intentionally, apparently) didn't allow us to get close (ha ha) enough to the characters to actually invest in their stories. We don't get them-- they're too beautiful, they speak like their words were crafted for them, and they do things we don't understand for reasons we don't understand.

But the problem goes beyond not caring for the characters. The story of Closer plays out in numerous episodes over a long-ish period of time. When we move forward in time to a new episode, the dramatic tension always comes from finding out who's fucking who now. The first couple of times it happens, I'm interested. How will these relationships play out? Where will it end? Who will end up happy, who miserable? But this pattern goes on relentlessly. It's so boring. We don't get to see the decision-making process these characters go through when they decide to fuck someone other than their lover... that would have been cool. There would have been tension in that. Instead, we only see the results of having cheated. We only see the fights, the humiliations, the regrets. It's all payoff with no set-up. Fighting is empty conflict if I don't care who wins.

This film was like the sex-based version of Heist. Our understanding of who's doing what, and why, flip-flops so many times (now SHE's conning HIM!) that we stop caring.

A single reversal that reveals something about a character I'm invested in is worth so much more than ten little ones.