Everyone Has Reversals

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

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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Colin Farrell's Tears

Well, this time I'll make no promises! Fall '08 was a blur of actual writing... leaving precious little time for writing-about-writing. But of late I've started to miss Chateau de Reversals, so I'm going to try to get a post up every now and then. When the urge strikes me...

...like it did when I saw In Bruges over the holidays this week. This one was a delightful surprise to many who saw it, and I'm no exception. If you've been wanting to see it, definitely go do that before reading on! The post'll still be here when you get back. Honest.

What really struck me about In Bruges was its contradictions. Often, in writing classes and how-to books (and I'm sure I'm guilty of passing on this misguided advice too...) we're told that characters must be defined. They are consistent in behaviour and voice and responses to adversity. When we like them -- or hate them, or empathize with them -- it's because we acknowledge that this particular little bundle of traits is recognizably our character.

But none of us should confuse consistency of character with great characters behaving one way and one way only. In Bruges is a brilliant example of this. Colin Farrell's character Ray is a bundle of contradictions -- and yet utterly and completely himself. He's an uneducated Irish asshole who refers to beer in a glass rather than a pint as "gay beer", and who has the simpleton's love of dwarves ("They're filming midgets!"). And yet this is also a character who, in our first scene with him, weeps in the bathroom over an as-yet-unrevealed tragedy. For a good chunk of the second act, this character divides his time between being utterly suicidal, and trying to bed a pretty Belgian girl.

Similarly, the villain of the film, Ralph Fiennes's Harry Waters, is at once compassionate, highly principled (especially when it comes to innocent children), and yet also an evil sonofabitch.

These gaps in expectation are where a lot of the humour in the film comes from... but they're also a great reminder that your characters don't have to be tidy to be internally consistent.

Also a great reminder that Colin Farrell really can act, and that Brendan Gleeson continues to kick. Ass.

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