Everyone Has Reversals

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

July 29, 2007

Treading Water

There's a certain kind of scene in a movie that just stops the story dead. You know one when you see one. You can tell you've hit a "treading water" scene because people are doing stuff, they're moving, and maybe even talking to other people, but subconsciously (or worse, consciously) you're waiting for the scene to end so something will actually happen.

Two examples from recent horrors:

  • The partying in Turistas. While our hard bodies frolic on the beach, and splash and play and flirt, we're waiting, and waiting, and thinking "Gee, I wish I was having a good a time as them. Instead, I'm stuck here watching this lame movie in which nothing is happening."
  • The stripping in I Know Who Killed Me. There's likely another whole post in this movie, cuz wow, but I'm putting this out there right now: there are, like, four scenes of La Lohan stripping on stage. Some of them rather lengthy. Because the character's a stripper, dontcha know, and to prove it, the movie has to show her stripping and stripping. She strips the hell out of that movie.
May I humbly request, faithful readers, that you not tread water. There is always a way to tie these scenes into the actual story. Can we not learn something new about the character in the scene? Or have some conflict with another character, preferably a conflict that's tied to the rest of the story? Movies are not just story beats interspersed with "flavour" and pretty pictures.

The pictures are the story!


July 22, 2007

The Pretenders

I've been researching teen romantic comedies, because I'm fleshing out an outline for one of my own. In my travels (and, okay, over a number of months) I've watched and made notes on She's the Man, What a Girl Wants, Mean Girls, John Tucker Must Die, 13 Going on 30, and Freaky Friday. In case you're not on a similar mission (but have a passing interest?), here are a few things I've learned about the teen rom-com:
  • Setpieces are absolutely crucial in this genre. Whether it's a school dance, huge "popular crowd" party, the "big game", a concert, a debutante ball, a school play... these movies are structured around their "everybody's gonna be there" events.
  • The "right guy" is very often into music. Either he's a music geek (John Tucker) or a musician himself (What a Girl Wants).
  • The right guy is also an outsider - he's not part of the "cool" crowd, though is, of course, in his non-conformist way, incredibly cool.
  • This works out well, given that the heroine of these movies is almost always an outsider herself; she's not cool by conventional standards, and doesn't quite fit in, which is exactly what makes her cool - to us, and to the right guy.
  • Our heroine's friends tend to represent varying degrees of trying too hard to fit in (the key theme of all of these films).
  • The villain in these movies might be a rival girl (13 Going on 30, What a Girl Wants) or a jerkhead guy (John Tucker), but this physical presence is rarely the main source of antagonism in these movies, which is...
  • Our heroine herself. It blows my mind, but each and every one of these movies is about the exact same thing - a girl who tries to be something she's not. This is the archetypal story for the teen rom-com. A girl who's pretty great to begin with pretends to be something else, falls into the trap of wanting it all, has a dark moment in which she discovers her real self has been lost, and, in the climax, publicly reveals her true self (thereby earning the respect of worthy friends and crushes).
What I want to know is, why does this story speak so powerfully to teenage girls, presumably the target audience for these movies? Or does it, even? Is it possible this story is what we as adults wish for, for teenage girls? We hope that girls will reject what (wait for it) "society" tells them they should be, and instead be the brave "outsider" (who, by the way, always ends up with more friends than she started with; even popular ones)? Finally, I would really like to know if the average teen girl relates to this archetypal one - do all teen girls see themselves as outsiders? Never popular enough, but are trying to embrace what they do have?

Anybody got a teenage daughter we could ask?

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July 08, 2007

A Few Good Deaths

*There's a spoiler warning on this site already, but please, please don't read this if you haven't yet seen Children of Men.

Rewatching Children of Men on DVD, I realized one of the most powerful aspects of the story: its deaths.

Lots of movies have characters who sacrifice themselves--sometimes even the protagonist does so--or are collateral damage in the battle that is the story. But when I finally saw this movie a second time, I really saw it for the simple, elegant story it is: there's something worth protecting, there's a journey to safety, and there's the many people along the journey who throw themselves (literally and figuratively) in front of the precious cargo to protect it, in the hope that something good will come of it someday. Sound familiar?

There is such a thing as a good death; that's clear from many movies. But I'm hard-pressed to think of another contemporary film structured around the relentless execution of characters we care about, and that doesn't feel remotely exploitative. It works here because the stakes are so damn high, the price for "success" must be absolutely brutal. For me, the lesson is: we don't have to protect our characters. For them, as for many people, a death in service of a cause is preferable to a wasted life.


July 02, 2007

Bitch Bitch Bitch

I got out a lot, into the sun, this long weekend. Honest, I did. But I also spent a little over two hours in the darkness of the theatre, with an old friend named John McClane.

Live Free or Die Hard was a lot of fun. I'm not going to break it down for you... I think you're pretty much going, or not. But something did occur to me during this movie that I think is worth mentioning. Very early on, there's a moment in which a henchman tells another henchman -- both of whom have just screwed up -- "You tell her." And for about .0015 of a second I thought: ooh, is the big baddie in this Die Hard a woman?

It's not. I'm not even spoiling anything -- the villain is not kept secret long. And while a "he" is in charge, his number two is definitely a force to be reckoned with. And it occurred to me: why the heck couldn't the supervillain in this movie have been a woman? And why is this so darn rare?

Here, I think, is the problem, broken down into its problem-parts:

1) A big, bad villain has to be really powerful and bad-ass. That can be a woman, but there's this general feeling that a super-strong woman is an exception to the rule. (Though TV seems to make this exception all the time for gals like Buffy, Veronica, Xena, Sydney Bristow, Jamie Sommers, Painkiller Jane, Jessica "Dark Angel" Alba, etc.)

2) On a related note, many find depictions of evil women lacking in credibility. Women are believed to be more nurturing, more community-minded... less selfish, less on-the-take. My argument to that? Do you find the male villains in action movies credible as human beings?

3) I have to wonder if there's a sense that we won't enjoy seeing a female villain getting the snot kicked out of her when her time comes. I have to say--the new Die Hard doesn't pull a single punch (or McClane-quip) from the female baddie, and I, for one, found that refreshing. I wasn't uncomfortable, because she was his physical match. They were equals; she was no victim.

4) It's possible that many filmmakers are reluctant to write a female villain because the very act of casting a woman as evil can feel political: mean women tend to be either androgynous monsters (Tilda Swinton as Narnia's White Witch), traiterous whores (Lena Olin's Mona in Romeo is Bleeding) or hideous, loveless, jealous, bitter crones (pretty much any Disney villain from the '30s through 1989). To that, I say the obvious: well then, do something else with your mean ladies!

Now, I don't expect to reconcile everything about men and women and the male gaze, and give birth to a new form of feminism that makes everyone feel equal to the point where characters are accessing the whole spectrum of human possibility... but wouldn't it be cool if I did? Take that, all you people who think blogging's a waste of time! Ha! (Hey, would you guys mind backing me up here? Could you go ahead and write some awesome female villains, that are interesting and credible and ass-kicky, so my blog legacy will live on? Thanks, I owe ya!)

*Props to Joss Whedon for Glory and Jasmine, among others, as well as Glenn Close for her Marquise. Feel free to add your props-deservers below.

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