Everyone Has Reversals

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

April 29, 2007

Going the Other Way

When I finally saw Casino Royale, I understood why everyone was excited. (Beyond Daniel Craig's abs. Can we focus, please?)

A big part of the reason Casino Royale was so fun was because it was full of surprises. It was full of surprises because it repeatedly turned our expectations on their heads.

Exhibits A through E:

A. He's a blond, thick, serious looking Bond. There was hoopla over the casting. Clearly, the intent was to go as far away from Pierce Brosnan's prettiness as possible. Which lent the movie some bad-assishness.

B. This bond is anything but effete, and doesn't quite belong. Shaken or stirred? they ask. He answers: "Do I look like I give a damn?"

C. The little details don't work out the way they normally do. At one point in the hotel hallway, Bond's earpiece gives him away. (I've always wondered why that doesn't happen more often.)

D. When this Bond is tortured, he doesn't seem unhurtable. He's actually pretty darn vulnerable. In fact, the torture he goes through is about the worst (and possibly most humiliating?) a man can suffer. This movie risks emasculating Bond, which actually has the opposite effect.

E. This Bond genuinely loves the girl, and has a complete character arc. Refreshing!

It's hard to say if many of these particular "fresh takes" can be repeated as the series continues, or if they're "reboot" factors. Nevertheless, if future Bond films surprise us by intentionally doing the things we don't expect them to... I'm in.

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April 22, 2007

Lessons from the Incredibly Obvious File #5

Saw United 93 this week, and thought it was intense and powerful. There are lots of great lessons here, though many have to do with the specifics of this particular movie. It's a 9/11 story, we already know what's going to happen (both the tragedy and the heroism), and we also know that a lot of what we're going to see on the plane is going to be invented... the movie is a triumph of restraint in all of those ways. It feels absolutely real, and it doesn't ever cross the line into exploitation.

But I'm going to leave all that. Most of the positive things I would say have to do with the incredibly fine line this movie had to walk to not be gross.

Instead, here's a much more general/useful tidbit to concentrate on: every so often, I see a movie that really makes use of characters doing their jobs. Well. And caring about their work. Before United 93 itself is hijacked, the movie follows countless nameless characters in Air Traffic Control towers in multiple cities, as well as men and women at various levels in NORAD, as they desperately try to figure out how many aircraft have been hijacked and what can be done to prevent more planes-as-bombs.

And it is incredibly moving.

It is powerful to watch people being passionate in their work.

It's the reason Aaron Sorkin has a career.


April 15, 2007

Reversal of the Week #1

Fast Times at Ridgemont High has a beautiful (and efficient!) reversal we can all learn from.

Older brother & car lover Judge Reinhold is stopped at a light. He's on a delivery, and is wearing his fast-food pirate uniform. A girl in a convertible beside him giggles. He thinks she’s flirting and smiles back. She giggles again; looks embarrassed. He realizes she’s laughing at his giant pirate hat. She drives away.

As we watch his car pull away, we see him toss the pirate hat out the window. Then every box of fish he was supposed to deliver. He’s done.

A reversal -- in 3 acts, and 3 minutes -- and all in a funny scene with no dialogue.

That's visual storytelling, people!

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April 09, 2007

Coming Full Circle


Dammit, Syd Field Was Right

In which we sort of continue the biopic discussion from the last post & comments.

I've been endlessly incorporating notes into my wedding comedy, in which the protagonist does some not-very-nice things. She has motivation to do 'em. Frankly, I'd piled on the motivation. But something was missing. Something fundamental about her character was going unexplained. It was on maybe draft 9 that I took to heart the question: "What made her this way?"

I had to go back. Way back. I figured out her "circle of being"-- the movie-language moment in time that effectively makes a person who they are in the present, and that will be directly addressed by the climax of the movie and how the character changes. Think of it as an origin myth for non-superheroes. I'm not done rewriting, but finding that moment for this character went a looooong way.

So I've been thinking about these circles. Here are a couple of examples of The Good and The Bad.

Circle of Being - The Good. One word: Rosebud.

Okay, that's too easy.

How about this: The love affair with Ilsa in Paris.

Whoops-- damn, too obvious too. But it works, huh? What makes Rick so darn cranky and reluctant to get emotionally involved? Hello! Maybe standing on that train platform with nothing but a broken heart?

Anyway. To the real example. I hope my memory isn't too sketchy here, but I'm thinking of Gattaca. Gattaca follows a lower-caste drone type guy who aspires to be an astronaut. His genes prevent him reaching this dream-- in this world, based on his genetic makeup, he's considered unfit. Unhealthy. But once, as a teenager, this kid beat his genetically-superior brother in a swimming race. That moment provides all the support our hero needs to pursue his dream, which he knows is possible. The movie also happens to elegantly thread flashbacks to this origin story through the present action. We get to see the beginning and completion of the circle at more or less the same time. It's pretty powerful.

Circle of Being - The Bad: Just to pick on The Aviator yet again... I think we're meant to believe that Howard Hughes's neuroses (yes, including the jars of urine!) stem from a moment in his childhood in which his mother washes him down-- creepily-- during a quarantine.

I'm sorry, but this is a terrible circle of being. Is the movie suggesting this one moment made Hughes? The big dreams as well as the mental illness? This is where circles of being break down and become fodder for mockery. It's ludricous. It feels like an "insert trauma here" moment. It's where movie language loses its power.

So, yeah. If you're going to come full circle, do it good and not bad.

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April 01, 2007

Biopic of the Litter


And On the Seventh Day, God Rolled Credits

Finally saw The Queen the other day. I'm sorry I put it off. Of all the Best Picture nominees this year, it's the one that really moves.

The conventional biopic seems to me to be built on multiple episodes leading up to the hero's breaking point, followed by their ultimate redemption. See The Aviator, or Ray. The problem with that structure? First of all, it makes the films feel interminably slow. We simply aren't being guided toward an answer to a bigger question. The question is often just "Where will this end?" (or in my case, "Is this ever going to end?").

The Queen is so simple. It pits Elizabeth II against the newly-elected Tony Blair in the days following Princess Di's death. The big question being, will Elizabeth cave to the pressure to show public grief for this massively popular woman who was no longer part of the family?

The dramatic question being so simple creates two immediate benefits: first, this question has a limited shelf life. The movie takes place over six days. We know our answer can only be so far down the road. We know we're not, for instance, going to have to watch Elizabeth react to her mum's death, or Charles's engagement to Camilla, or Harry stupidly wearing that Nazi costume to a Halloween party. Instead, the movie propels itself toward its ending (the "answer") like a guided missile.

The second benefit? By having a very simple plot structure, there's lots of room for character. The movie tells the story of a woman through the story of this particular dilemma.

Why the hell is this such a rare choice for a biopic?

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