Plot and Character on the Orient Express

Without a solid plot, you have nothing. Right about now, the proponents of “character driven stories” usually reach for their revolvers. But plot is not, as is often assumed, mutually exclusive with artfully developed characters. The dictionary on my computer defines plot as, “the main events of a play, novel, movie, or similar work, devised and presented by the author as an interrelated sequence.” In other words, plot is what happens. The only kind of film without a plot is a film where nothing happens, and that’s a film no one wants to see.

In his book, Story, Robert McKee argues that well crafted characters and well crafted plot are synonymous. A plot is constructed from conflicts between and within characters. Another way of looking at the same idea is to say:

plot = characters + conflict

Each event featured in a story should tell us something about the characters involved. More importantly, it should tell us something about the conflicts between and within those characters. The individual features of characters, from their physical descriptions to their favorite foods, can be important, but only when they serve to illuminate conflict.

That’s the problem we find when we look at the newest adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. As a full disclaimer: this is the only adaptation of Christie’s novel that I’ve seen. Nor have I read the book itself. I am judging this film completely independently from its source material.

Beware of spoilers.

The film opens with the resolution of an earlier crime. Inspector Hercule Poirot solves a case, catches a crook, and presents us with his outrageous French accent. Then… nothing. Lots and lots of nothing. There is a brief conversation between Poirot and a guard that serves to tell us, a) Poirot is heading to Istanbul on vacation, and b) his super detective powers come from his OCD, or something thereabouts — a fact which hardly figures in the rest of the film. A further scene tells us that he really likes cakes and introduces his cookie-cutter sidekick. And another initiates an obvious red herring (before even a hint of the crime has been introduced). Throughout all of this set-up, characters are examined, sometimes superficially and sometimes in tedious detail, but the film’s main plot fails to materialize. It’s boring.

Imagine, instead, that the film opened with it’s first real scene. All of the characters board the train. We see each of them in passing, each identified by a single pithy moment of minor conflict. This approach is better for two reasons. First, it allows for a sharper exploration of each character, while also preventing the audience from fixating on any one suspect too early. Second, and more importantly, it drags us into the mystery — or at least a mystery — right away. We effectively crash land in this place and with these people, trying to play catch up. Where is this? Who are these people? Which of them is going to commit the titular murder, and who will be the victim? Such an opening generates a tremendous amount of energy in the form of conflict: conflict between the characters as they settle onto the train, conflict within the characters as each carries with them the history that brought them to this place, and conflict within the viewers as we struggle to understand what is happening. By the time we catch up to events, the murder has been committed and the plot is in full motion.

Murder on the Orient Express has other problems, but for me they all come back to this substitution of character details for plot. For most of its runtime the film simply offers a platform for actors, admittedly brilliant actors, to ply their trade. Talking head is replaced by talking head, and we explore the characters in ways that only drive the conflict forward in fits and starts. The finale is dramatic, but expected. It lacks the energy of a story’s worth of questions, intrigues, and reversals.

It reminds me of an interview I once saw with a director — at the moment I can’t remember which one — who said that his job was to be the guardian of the story as a whole, rather than the guardian of the individual characters. He stressed that characters must be developed for the story to progress, but he also stressed the fact that characters, if not checked, could overrun their collective story. It’s a kind of cinematic tragedy of the commons. That, I think, is the flaw to be found in Murder on the Orient Express. It is a film where characters serve their own development before they serve the development of their mutual story. As a result, the film fails to produce a consistent flow of emotional energy.

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Plot and Subplot in Netflix’s “Godless”

Beware of minor spoilers

I’ve been sick as a dog for the past few days, which naturally means that I’ve been watching quite a lot of t.v. Fortunately for me, Netflix is keen, as always, to oblige me with a tidal wave of streaming titles, including their new show, Godless. For those who don’t know, the show belongs to that newer breed of Westerns that eschew the traditional conventions of the genre. Older Westerns are generally defined by sweeping vistas and a slow build of tension towards a limited number of violent incidents. The newer ones incorporate some of the vistas, but they have more or less done away with the slow build. In that regard, it might be better to think of them, not as Westerns, but as ordinary adventures set in the Old West. Godless undoubtedly fits into that category, but its structural problems lie elsewhere. In particular, the show seems to confuse its plots and subplots, sabotaging its dramatic build and lending much of the action a subtle sense of tedium.

The show’s gimmick is that the menfolk of a small mining town all die off in a mining accident, leaving the place inhabited almost exclusively by women. When I say that this is the show’s gimmick, I don’t mean that in a negative sense. Most shows and films have a gimmick of some kind or another. In Westworld, a show I absolutely love, the gimmick is: there exists an Old West amusement park populated by A.I. characters, where human beings go to live out their violent fantasies. To say that a show has a gimmick is not an insult. At the same time, we should not make the mistake of confusing a show’s gimmick for its story. In Westworld, the gimmick is closely tied to the story: the A.I. characters wake up and find that they are slaves to humanity’s worst impulses. We might expect Godless to feature a story similarly situated within its gimmick. Perhaps it should center itself on some difficulty the women in the town have living in the sexist and violent atmosphere of the Old West. Or, at the very least, the show’s central story should take place within the town, using the oddity of the gimmick as a backdrop and complicating factor for the primary conflict.

That’s where Godless trips itself up on a structural level. The show’s central conflict is instead a kind of imitation Shane. An ex-gunslinger, having pushed his psychotic old bandit chief to the breaking point, finds himself healing up at a small ranch outside of town. He and the broken family inhabiting the ranch help each other to heal and to move beyond the past, right up until the point when it comes time for him to go off and confront the bandit chief one final time. Mission accomplished, he rides off into the sunset. Hardly an original story, but, barring some sloppy character work, it is a good one.

The only problem is that it has next to nothing to do with the show’s gimmick. The ranch where most of the central story takes place is outside of the show’s principal town, far enough removed to seem like its own little world. Nor does the presence of the town form an intimate component of the central story’s conflicts. The two locations’ plot lines cross on two or three occasions, including the season’s climax, but they are otherwise entirely separate.

On a structural level, that means that we have a main plot line, taking place at the ranch, and a set of subplots, most of which take place at an entirely different location. But the subplots are also the bearers of the show’s gimmick, and so the lion’s share of the seven hour runtime is spent, not with our overarching main plot line, but with the unconnected subplots. People fall in and out of love, family squabbles are played out, and every dog has his day. It’s classic soap opera tactics. The only problem is that almost none of it is connected to the main plot. We spend hours watching the show’s subplots play out, and for much of that we can’t help wishing we were back on the ranch, watching the main conflict continue to build towards the finale. The entire gimmick could have been cut from the show with relatively little hassle, and the resulting narrative would have been stronger and more focused for its absence.

The problem, put another way, is not that the show features a great many subplots, but that these subplots are little more than side-shows. They do little to complicate the main story, and, except in a few cases, they defuse rather than augment the show’s overall sense of tension.

The lesson I took away from Godless is therefore twofold. First, a story’s gimmick should always be closely tied to its central narrative. Second, if a subplot distracts from the central narrative, or discharges the tension too early, then it is better to cut it or replace it than to leave it in. This applies, not only to television shows, but to films and books and any other kind of narrative. If it doesn’t augment the central story, then it only holds you back.

As a side-note, you might take this post as a blanket condemnation of Netflix’s Godless, but it’s worth mentioning that I did watch the show from beginning to end. Is it a great example of storytelling? I don’t think so. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t have its entertaining moments. You may watch it and think I’m off my nut. If so, I hope you’ll come back and tell me where you think I’m going wrong.

Multiple Plot-lines, Powerless Protagonists, Fargo and Suburbicon

Beware of spoilers.

Last week I went to see Suburbicon more or less at random. I’d spent the past several days studying for the GRE (read, trying to reteach myself all of high-school math in four days). On test day, I ate a big breakfast at 8:30 in the morning, and went across town to meet my arithmetical fate. By the time I got out of the test, it was close to 3:00pm, I was hungry enough to eat an ox, and I was very very tired. That left me with a choice. I could go home, eat a late lunch/early dinner, and spend the rest of the day loafing about my apartment. Or I could go to the theater, eat a crappy hotdog, and buy a ticket for the next movie playing. The next movie was Suburbicon.

Now, that’s a long way of explaining why my attention was somewhat divided during the film’s opening credits. Yes, I saw the opening shot and the introductory sequence, but I was really quite hungry, and attentions paid to the cheap movie theater hotdog I was eating were not paid to the names of the director or the writers. As a result, my experience of the film was essentially without preexisting expectations. From my vague memory of the trailer, I knew it took place in suburbia, that some kind of crime would take place, and that Matt Damon was in it. And that was all I knew. 

“Hey,” I thought about a third of the way into the movie, “It’s like someone tried to rewrite Fargo to be about suburbia instead of rural Minnesota.” The film’s main plot line, while by no means identical with Fargo’s, features the same peculiar mingling of domestic drama with grisly crime thriller. More than that, however, the humor seemed to be very much in the Cohen Brothers’ style. From Fargo, to The Big Lebowski, to O Brother Where Art Thou, the Coen brothers’ characters are always ridiculous and comical, but their ridiculousness comes from a kind of hyperreality. The Coen brothers excel at taking the traits of ordinary people and incorporating them into bizarre and archetypal figures.

But, for all that, Suburbicon was clearly not a Coen Brothers’ film. The lighting and colors were almost right, but that can be explained away by coincidence, given the archetypal suburban setting. But the cinematography was different. The Coen brothers like to use the camera to bring us into the world of the characters. Their style seems to intentionally overexpose; there’s something both intimate and inflexible about it. Suburbicon was different. Without seeing it again, I can’t put my finger on the exact difference. But it seemed to me that there was greater distance between the camera and its subjects. In some ways it was a much more visually conservative film than one would expect from the Coen Brothers.

With the end credits came the solution to the mystery: “Directed by George Clooney. Written by George Clooney, Grant Heslov, and,” the kicker, “Joel and Ethan Coen.” So that explains the discrepancy. It’s not a Coen Brothers’ film, but it does bear some of the unmistakeable signs of their handiwork. And that makes for some interesting comparisons with the Coen Brothers’ other films, notably Fargo.

Before I move on to a discussion of several of Suburbicon’s failings compared with Fargo, however, I should stop to acknowledge that I did actually enjoy Suburbicon. Critics, it seems, did not. The film has a 4.9/10 on IMDB, and only a 26% rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes. Audiences rated it even lower, at 24%. From that, you might expect a film that completely failed to carry an emotional charge, one that was more painful than it was enjoyable to watch. I’m not going to argue that it was a masterpiece, by any means, but nor was it a complete artistic disaster. Do I have any pressing need to see it again? No. Do I regret seeing it at all? No.

So, at the risk of making a long post longer, what were two of the mistakes made in Suburbicon as opposed to Fargo?

1.

First up, we have a broad similarity in the two films’ plot structures. In general terms, they each feature two at least nominally interconnected plot lines. In Fargo, we first have the crime and it’s rapid devolution into bloody chaos. In this plot line Jerry, the husband of the intended kidnapping victim and the orchestrator of the plot, serves as the principal protagonist. We watch his rapid loss of control over the crime through his eyes. The second plot line follows Marge, the policewoman who picks up the pieces and eventually restores the world of the film to some semblance of justice. The important thing, here, is that the two plot lines, though they follow different protagonists, are fundamentally interconnected. Jerry’s activities bring chaos and violence to the world of the film, and Marge’s activities restore a situation of relative peace and order. What one protagonist does, the other later arrives to uncover and undo.

Suburbicon’s dual plot lines, on the other hand, are little more than tangentially related. The primary plot line follows Nicky, a little boy whose father murders his mother, embroiling the entire family in criminal intrigue. This is the plot line that most resembles Fargo, because of its domestic-criminal eccentricity. Nicky’s father, Lodge (Matt Damon), commits a crime, only to see it spiral rapidly out of control. The secondary plot line, intercut with the first, deals with their neighbors. The Mayers are a black family moving into a predominantly white suburban town. The racist townsfolk try to drive the Mayers family away, and the Mayers family stands its ground.

These two plot lines never truly link up. At points throughout the film, Nicky and the Mayers’ son Andy meet up in their back yards to play and to commiserate over their respective situations, but that is more or less the extent of it. Any plot relation between the two stories is therefore allegorical.

That, in and of itself, is not a problem. Allegorically tied stories can exist effectively side by side, but in this case the connection between the two stories is hazy. Perhaps the main plot line comments on the Mayers’ situation in that it shows that, despite the townsfolk’s repeated objections to the contrary, it is the white majority of the town that is responsible for all of this violence. If so, it’s simply an unnecessary statement. We can see as much in the behaviors of the respective characters. The Mayers are clearly victims, and the townsfolk persecuting them are clearly violent maniacs. Perhaps, on the other hand, the secondary plot line comments on the situation in Nicky’s family, extending Lodge’s greed and violence to society as a whole.

Either way, the linkage is frail and unclear, a situation made worse by the total lack of development in the secondary plot line. The Mayers are rarely present onscreen, and their characters are fundamentally underdeveloped. At best, they serve as generic symbols for the victims of racial oppression. At worst, they serve as a socially conscious appendix in a movie otherwise devoted entirely to criminal and domestic drama. They come across as an afterthought rather than an integral component of the film. In that way, a story that might have carried important and moving social implications falls far short of its mark. 

Comparing the multiple plot lines of Fargo and Suburbicon thus stands to teach us an important lesson. Multiple plot lines can be used effectively, but there must be a clear narrative or allegorical link between them. Moreover, both plot lines should be developed enough to present their own unique and living characters.

2.

The other major comparison to draw here resides in the nature of the two films’ protagonists.

In Fargo, the first plot line’s protagonist is Jerry: a down on his luck husband who decides to orchestrate the kidnapping of his own wife in an attempt to swindle her overbearing father out of a large ransom. Jerry’s efforts are, tragically, characterized by incompetence and negative coincidence. Anything that can go wrong does go wrong, leading to comical but also grim results.

In some senses this means that Jerry is powerless. Every effort he makes to dig himself out of his situation only lands him in a worse situation. But the important feature of his character is that he remains an active participant in the film’s events. In fact, if Jerry played a passive role in Fargo the film wouldn’t have much of a story to tell. His life would go on miserable but hum-drum, and nothing would ever happen. The brilliance of Fargo is that Jerry is his own victim. Despite any appearances of powerlessness, he does have one all important power: the power to make things worse.

Compare him to Nicky, the protagonist of Suburbicon. Nicky is a little boy caught up in a criminal web not of his own making. It is Lodge who murders the boy’s mother for the insurance money, Lodge who fails to appease his accomplices, and so on and so forth. Lodge, in Suburbicon, fills the role that Jerry fills in Fargo: possessing the power only to destroy himself and others. But the film is undeniably about Nicky. And what can Nicky do? He can watch. He can refuse to participate in his father’s crimes. And he can seek help from his uncle. The film’s climax sees him sit back and watch as his father commits one final act of self-destruction, eating a poisoned PB&J sandwich that was meant for Nicky. Put simply, Nicky’s scope of action is fundamentally passive.

And that lends the film a kind of awkwardness. The level of energy is extremely high whenever we watch Lodge, but it drops off again whenever we return to Nicky’s perspective. Because Nicky does not act, he does not truly feel like the leading character. We sympathize with his situation, and we understand that the film is about him, but we do not center ourselves in his being. He feels flat. As Robert McKee observes in his book, Story, it is not the details surrounding a character that make him come to life, but his engagement in conflict. The forces arrayed against Nicky are great, but he is not really the one to engage them.

What, then, could the filmmakers have done to keep Suburbicon about Nicky, but to engage him more fully in the film’s conflicts? There are a number of solutions, but the most conservative one, on a structural level, is simply to make him more investigative. Reduce the amount of plot information we receive through Lodge, the Claims Investigator, the Police, and the Mafia, and force Nicky to act in order to uncover his father’s criminal activity. Center us more fully in Nicky’s experience, limiting the information we have to the information he has, and the level of energy in the film suddenly leaps forward. Nicky goes from being a passive proxy for the audience to being an active participant in his own fate.

What is the lesson we can take away from this comparison, then? In truth, it’s nothing more than a variation on what is already common knowledge among storytellers: don’t write passive protagonists. But that does not mean that protagonists cannot be powerless. Jerry has very limited power over his own fate, but he remains an engaging character because he becomes a very active participant in that powerlessness. Nicky also has very limited power, but he fails to become an engaging character because his own behavior has no bearing on that sense of powerlessness. Our attention in Suburbicon thus finds itself drawn away from the protagonist at every opportunity, leaving the film with an unbalanced feeling.

Some Things About Stranger Things

The popularity of Stranger Things is clearly deserved. The show offers an emotional experience that is hard to find in today’s cinematic marketplace. On the surface, it follows the members of a small midwestern town as they find themselves at war with a parallel dimension. The ensuing clash of worlds pits all the hope and idealism of the American dream against creatures out of Lovecraftian nightmare. The show is terrifying and uplifting, familiarly human and mysteriously inhuman. And yet, like all artistic works, it has its flaws.

In this post, I’m going to address two issues that struck me while bingeing the show’s latest season. First, I’ll talk about the power imbalance that represents the show’s single greatest flaw. Second, I’ll address the reason that none of the show’s imperfections interfere with its core appeal. Beware of minor spoilers.

 

1.

Stranger Things’s most significant flaw is the power imbalance represented by the interaction of its supernatural enemies with Eleven (a character imbued with psychic powers).

The enemies, especially in the first season, represent a force so far outside of human capabilities that any attempt to go up against them will inevitably lead to death rather than success. Entire machine gun clips are emptied into the hides of the monsters, to no avail. That makes the creatures incredibly scary. There is a sort of Lovecraftian idea that the human characters are totally out of their depth when dealing with these creatures. All of the heroes’ guile and ingenuity is taken up with the mere task of survival.

And that leads to some truly wonderful moments of fear and heroism. Every attempt the characters make to fight back, no matter how small their victories, feels epic, because they are so completely outmatched.

The incomprehensible power of these monsters only really creates trouble for the show when it crosses path with Eleven’s own expansive and under-defined powers. Eleven can find people across great distances, contact alternate dimensions, and throw objects with her mind for good measure. It’s all really cool. But it also means that any limit to her abilities is a matter of quantity rather than quality. Put another way, her introduction on the scene is a little like fielding a modern U.S. army tank against a force of medieval knights. The tank will kill any number of knights until it runs out of shells to fire at them. The knights, well, they should start running. Eleven, like the tank, can do anything she needs to, provided she has the ammo.

And that isn’t automatically a problem. It’s delightful to see Eleven go up against enemies she hopelessly outmatches, because the imbalance itself creates a kind of energy. It can be both exciting and humorous. But, ironically, it’s less fun to see her go up against an enemy that is her equal.

What happens when you pit an unstoppable force against an immovable object? It turns out that you end up with the same problem that the DC Extended Universe has created for itself with its big finales. The super-powered characters butt heads like billy goats, and the victor is the one with more super muscle. In film terms, the lack of defined limits to both characters’ powers means that the only way to make the fight big and exciting is to substitute visual effects and pure force for clever and meaningful action. In terms of emotional energy, the result is a kind of stasis.

Frankly, I think the show runners realize that dynamic action is more engaging than these kinds of superhero power-offs. If you compare the first season to the second, you’ll see that the heroes (Eleven excepted) are able to make much more meaningful gains against their enemies than they were in the first season. Some of the monsters can be killed with conventional weapons, and others can be outwitted and defeated. These are the battles that are the most satisfying, because they are the ones that present the show’s physical conflict at its most intense. In other words, the show runners make the monsters more satisfying in the second season by giving them weaknesses (but not too many) that can be exploited in a dynamic way.

They have yet to do the same with Eleven, however, and the second season still ends with a super-powered arm wrestling match between her and the season’s arch-monster. The kind of conflict represented in that struggle is the most uninteresting feature of an otherwise superb show, and it will remain that way until the show runners find Eleven’s Achilles Heel.

 

2.

But why is it that Stranger Things has such appeal? Both seasons feature a delightful blend of mystery, adventure and family drama, with just enough horror to amplify the tension without coming across as gaudy. And the constant nods to past genre pieces and to ‘80s culture promote a kind of nostalgia. But none of that truly explains the show’s appeal.

As cliché as it is to say, I think Stranger Things works because of its characters. They aren’t unique, and in many cases they aren’t even original, but they are honest. These are ordinary people, with ordinary flaws and problems, caught up in the midst of a scenario of Lovecraftian horror. The kids are growing up, the adults are trying to get by, and the teenagers find themselves caught somewhere between the two.

And in the middle of all that normal drama, monsters beyond human understanding invade their town and threaten their lives. The resulting clash of the normal and the paranormal raises these ordinary people up to extraordinary proportions. They become heroes and monster hunters without ever changing that core of normalcy. We see ourselves, our loved ones and our neighbors in these people, even as we see them transformed by their circumstances. They are both familiar and heroic.

Moreover, the world the show presents us with is essentially good in its nature. There are bad people, but they are far outnumbered by the scores of kind-hearted and well-meaning characters. Even at their worst, the vast majority of characters want the same things we all want: to live, to love, to be accepted. It is a world in which strangers are more likely to be kind than cruel, and where people’s flaws do not pervert the essentially positive charge of their nature.

The idealistic view of human nature inherent in the show flies directly in the face of what seems to be the artistic consensus: that we are all self-serving, weak and vicious, that life is painful, and that even good cannot help being tarnished in the end. For those tired of choosing between two-dimensional characters and antiheroes, Stranger Things provides an almost conscious alternative: a world where good yet flawed characters are pitted against Lovecraftian horrors, and where hope can be found even in the most hopeless of circumstances.

Film as Industry vs. Film as Art

Here’s a thought: why study films? There are other art forms that tell stories, that make us feel specific emotions, and that promote a sense of beauty and the spectacular. What, then, separates film from any of these other mediums?

Prose fiction is the obvious example of another narrative art form, but we can also point to graphic novels, poetry, music, and even painting. Now, admittedly only two of those habitually tell stories these days, but that doesn’t mean that the others are incapable of conveying some kind of narrative. Poetry is one of the oldest and finest narrative forms, despite the fact that these days it trends towards emotional snapshots rather than plot. The Iliad, The Charge of the Light Brigade, and even The Jabberwocky can all attest as much. Music, likewise, has often been used to tell stories. Among my favorite examples is Loreena McKennitt’s The Highwayman. As for painting, still images though they are, paintings have often be used to tell stories. Napoleon’s court painter, Jacques-Louis David, was also one of his chief propagandists. Many of the paintings David made told idealized stories of the Emperor’s triumphs, and thereby helped to craft Napoleon’s public image.

Any of these art forms is also capable of conveying any emotion that film can convey. Novels and graphic novels are again obvious in this, given that they are typologically very similar to film. And no one is going to argue that poetry can’t instill feelings of loss and fear, joy and hope, heroism and cowardice. Music, meanwhile, may be the most interesting and complex of all these emotional mediums, along with being the oldest. If there are limits to its emotional range, we haven’t found them yet. And, as for painting, no one who has ever seen a painting by Caspar David Friedrich is ever going to argue that painting is not the emotional equal of its peer mediums in both range and complexity.

So how does film stand out? What makes film special? The answer is that it isn’t an art form, as such.

Right now you might be rolling your eyes at me. “Not an art form? What is it then? A bar of chocolate? God’s gift to mankind?” Or maybe you’ve already gleaned what I’m going to say from the title of this post.

Film isn’t an art form because it’s an industry. That is to say that narrative film is not a singular act of artistic expression. Instead, it’s a collection and repackaging of many different creations. Individually, writing, cinematography, lighting, acting, composing, etc. are what I would consider pure art forms. But film, in aggregate, really isn’t about any one of these. It’s about the collection, intermingling, and coordinating of their individual effects. It’s meta-art, or, to put it another way, art made industry.

Okay, so why does that make film interesting? There are two major reasons that I can think of:

First, as I discussed in my post on Films vs. Books, the output of information in a film is different from that of its component art forms. Essentially, every moment of watching a film is made up of lots of different kinds of art, all of which are trying to tell you something at the same time: there’s the framing, the lighting, the acting, the music, the dialogue and so on and so forth. Our brains process all of that information, but its hard for us to be consciously aware of all of it at the same time. The mixing together of these different art forms, and their changing over the film’s runtime, makes for an emotional experience that is often far less cerebral and far more visceral than any one art form can produce on its own. In other words, a well-assembled film can be greater than the sum of its parts.

The second reason this industrial view of film is interesting, is that it is almost always the work of many different artists. We often speak about films as though they were the solitary productions of directors: “Have you seen Tarantino’s new film? Spielberg’s done it again,” and so on and so forth. But that is a gross simplification. The director’s job is a creative one; it’s true. But it’s creative in an odd way. The director, in some senses, is the film’s curator. His/her job is to coordinate the efforts of dozens (often hundreds) of different artists into a cohesive whole, to “direct” in fact. In many ways that’s the lynchpin role of the whole project, but we shouldn’t make the mistake of ascribing sole authorship to the director.

That means that a finished film does not consist of a single voice. Just as film is an aggregate of many different art forms, an individual film is an aggregate of the efforts and creative visions of all the different artists who contribute to its creation. True, the director’s vision comes through stronger than the others. As, often, does the producer’s. But everyone contributing to the film has a hand in crafting its message and steering its course.

There is something exciting, organic and enigmatic about a process where no one person can completely control the form the final work takes. Because it has multiple creators, a film takes on a kind of life of its own. And that can be both a great curse and a great blessing to the quality of the finished work. Sometimes the organic messiness of this process leads to a finished film that seems to lack integrity, or that simply does not hold together. But other times, especially in the hands of a skilled director, the multiple artistic voices that go into the film harmonize together to create something more beautiful than any one of them could have managed alone. And that, I think, is a phenomenon worth studying.

Beauties and their Beasts (Part 2): Film Review

In my last post I discussed Disney’s new live action remake genre and its business/consumer implications. This week I’m going to take a closer look at the new Beauty and the Beast and the reasons it fails to deliver, at least from a critical perspective.

Part of the issue is a simple matter of botched design: animated character design, and live action costuming. In the original film the characters were stylized, as one would expect from an animated film. That gave the artists leeway to make them quite appealing. We look at Lumière, for instance, and we see a figure that we accept as human, despite the fact that he is a candlestick. In the live action version the artists were constrained by the fact that everything needed to look realistic, or the animated characters wouldn’t mesh with the presence of real live people like Emma Watson. Lumière, Cogsworth, Mrs. Pots and all the rest therefore had to look far more like real candlesticks, clocks and tea-kettles than they did in the animated version. That means that they looked less like people, and that the character design was far less personal. Of course, there was almost certainly a way to design around this problem. At the very least, the filmmakers ought to have swapped out the original film’s furniture characters for something they could do well (so long as it wasn’t the weird puppy gremlins from the recent French film). In any case, the character design on all the furniture creatures was unpleasant to look at and failed to fully communicate the humanity of the characters involved.

The human characters in the film also suffer from bad design. I’m mainly talking about the poor costume design here, but the lighting, the sets and the cinematography all compound the problem. Garish and clashing colors combine with mediocre lighting to make the live action characters into no less of an eyesore than the animated ones. What’s more, we get so many of them on the screen at once, generally with little attention to visual rhythm and negative space, that the film’s visual space gets overloaded with ugly and chaotic imagery.

Of course, all of this is little more than window-dressing. No matter how garish the film might look, a well-written story would have made up the difference. Here, the new Beauty and the Beast falls victim to its own mandate to be. The original animated film had a brilliant and tightly written story. On the one hand, Disney clearly wanted to imitate that structure and recreate its success. On the other hand, the filmmakers recognized that they had to offer some kind of variation and new content other than the shift from animation to live action. They had to make a film that was the same as the original, but different.

The new version therefore features such variations as Belle’s backstory, altered secondary and tertiary characters, new dialogue, and different lyrics for some of the songs. These are all superficial changes. So how is it that they have such a tremendously negative effect on the film’s narrative?

My answer to that is simply that they distract us from the underlying strength of the original film’s structure. The discovery of Belle’s somewhat grim backstory, for instance, is made into a major story beat within the new film. But that backstory has no purpose within the structure of the film, and little enough meaning in relation to the film’s themes and conflicts. It produces nothing more than drag on the story’s emotional flow. In other words, it’s pure fat that should have been cut in the name of narrative economy.

Then we have the altered characters. Maurice is now an artist/clockmaker instead of an inventor, Lefou is now gay, Mrs. Pots now has a husband, and the wardrobe is now a demented singer/avant garde clothing designer. The film goes out of its way to give all of these characters tangible features and histories, but in doing so it ignores the deeper behaviors and characterizations that made them compelling in the first place. The truth is that deep and believable characters don’t emerge because we know extra facts about them, or because we spend more time exploring their backstories. A character with one line, or no lines, can be more compelling than a character with over a dozen. What matters is a character’s situation, and the way he or she brings that situation to bear upon the story’s conflicts. Knowing more about these characters, ironically, makes them less believable because it insulates them from their role in relation to the story’s main conflicts. They become caricatures, not because we spend too little time with them, but because we spend too much. What’s more, all that extra time exploring these unimportant characters is time not spent exploring the film’s central conflict.

I would argue, therefore, that the new Beauty and the Beast’s great failing is not that it attempts to imitate the formula presented by the original. Instead, its failing lies in the inclusion of new material that does not suit the old. In an effort to make the new film different, the filmmakers added in all of the fat and messiness that was no doubt sacrificed to make the original film so strong. Their new material, instead of adding to the film’s good qualities, distracts from them. It obscures the underlying power of the story beneath a mountain of small weaknesses, and renders the final film tedious rather than enjoyable.

Of course, my reaction will not be everyone’s reaction. I’d love to hear from anyone who loved or even liked this film. What made it compelling for you? How did the new material help to build upon the original film? After all, the film was quite successful in theaters. So no doubt Disney was doing something right.

Beauties and their Beasts (Part 1): Disney’s odd new genre

I finally got around to seeing Disney’s new live action Beauty and the Beast. Anyone who knows me will know that I was not looking forward to this film. Part of my lack of anticipation came from the trailers, which exhibited the film’s poor design and cheap production quality; part of it came from my earlier experience with Cinderella and The Jungle Book, both of which I turned off halfway through. But mostly I just found the appeal of such a project incomprehensible. Disney’s original animated version of Beauty and the Beast is one of my favorite films. I understand remakes of old films when their visual style or the surface values they present have become outdated. But, to my mind, the original Beauty and the Beast is as relevant and watchable today as it was when it first came out. Why would I want to see a newer and less finely crafted version, when I could simply go back and rewatch the old one?

The reasons that Disney would want to create such a film are obvious. It’s an existing piece of intellectual property, with a story arc that, at its core, has already been tested and proven at the box office. Disney is a large company, devoted to doing whatever turns a profit. There is nothing immoral, cheap, or surprising in the company’s interest in taking an old property that no longer delivers blockbuster returns and reviving it to its original profitability.

What shocks me is that so many of Disney’s customers seem eager to consume this refried material. Of course, it’s nothing exclusive to Beauty and the Beast. Maleficent, a botched half-way retelling of Sleeping Beauty, made around $250 million domestically in 2014. The next year Cinderella made $200 million domestically, and in 2016 The Jungle Book did even better than its predecessors at $364 million domestic. And now Beauty and the Beast has topped them all at roughly $500 million. What’s more, all of these films also did rather well in foreign markets. Clearly, therefore, there is a market for this style of re-adaptation of old films, despite the fact that the adaptations in question better reflect the quality of 2011’s Conan the Barbarian remake than that of their source material.

Why are people going to see these films? The honest answer is that I can only speculate. It could simply be a factor of how fondly the originals are remembered: people go back to see the new films because the old ones moved them so much and they want to recapture a piece of that old feeling in the theater. That explanation, however, begs the question of why every such remake doesn’t prove similarly profitable. Hitchcock’s original Psycho (1960) was the wonder and terror of the theaters. In 1998, Gus Van Sant directed a remake that failed to even cover its own costs. The quality of the remade film, while low, was certainly no lower than that of the new Beauty and the Beast.

Is it simply that Disney can do no wrong? That answer, to me, seems to dodge the question. If Disney can do no wrong, that is because Disney is doing something right by its audiences. People out there are seeing these films, time and time again, and coming back, time and time again, for a nearly identical experience.

Let us therefore assume that the films succeed, at least in part, on their own merits instead of on the merits of the originals. When I watch these films, all I see is a tedious narrative with a visual style that hurts my eyes more than it pleases them. But someone out there likes the films enough to keep coming back. Of course, the same might be said of the Transformers series. They are universally reviled by critics and yet people invariably keep going to see them. What is it the critics are missing? That is a question that requires a great deal more research and a future post. Odds are that the attraction of Disney’s live action remakes and of the Transformers series is completely different for their respective audiences.

What fascinates me about them, however, is how completely I find myself on the outside of those audiences. That total foreignness is somewhat new to me. Romantic comedies, for example, will never be my genre. But I can still watch a romantic comedy and understand what makes someone appreciate it. And there are well made romantic comedies that I truly love despite the fact they belong to a genre that often does not appeal to me. The same goes for superhero movies, horror films, and all manner of different genres. But I truly do not understand what makes these particular films popular. If you have an idea, or better yet if you think you’re a part of Disney’s target audience with its live action remakes, please let me know. I’d be very interested to hear what you think.

Later this week I’ll put out Part 2 of this post, in which I’ll discuss the new Beauty and the Beast in more detail, showing where I think the filmmakers went wrong from a critical/narrative perspective. From a business perspective, they are clearly doing something right.

The Death of the Epic

“A cast of thousands,” announces the hokey voice on an old trailer, “The greatest adventure story ever told.” Hyperbole aside, this is the calling card of the old Film Epic: do it bigger, do it better, make it the most incredible thing anyone has ever seen. Wikipedia defines an Epic as having “large scale, sweeping scope, and spectacle.” To that I would add that the classic Epic genre, which peaked in the ‘60s, trends toward long films, usually over three hours. The expense that goes into producing these films has always made them difficult prospects for filmmakers and studios to undertake, but the genre used to enjoy a popularity that has since seemed to fade.

Only a few recent films fully conform to the genre’s definition. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is far and away the best example (The Hobbit movies also technically fit the bill, but we’re not going to talk about them). Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar comes in at two hours and forty-nine minutes, and its sweeping scope and spectacle certainly fit the genre’s characteristics. There are also a few films that fulfill all of the characteristics except the length. Dunkirk springs to mind, at just under two hours.

But most of those spectacular three to four hour Epics seem to be gone, if not for good, then at least for the foreseeable future. Spartacus, The Ten Commandments, Lawrence of Arabia – it’s been a long time since we’ve seen anything like these.

There are a number of reasons behind that trend. For one thing, historical adventure stories have largely given way to a preference for fantasy, science fiction, and superhero movies. As The Lord of the Rings and Interstellar prove, there is nothing intrinsic about these genres that prevents them from being made into Epics. And they are excellent genres in their own rights. At the same time, the overall lack of historical films today does mark an extraordinary departure from the stories told by the Epic genre at its height.

More important, I think, is Hitchcock’s famous assertion: “the length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.” And we should probably assume that the bladder in question belongs to a human who forgot to use the restroom before walking into the theater. In other words, any film stretching much past the two hour mark is inviting a form of impatience that comes naturally to all of us. The old Epics of the ’60s accounted for this human shortcoming by including an intermission after two hours: five minutes of pleasant music during which the audience could get out of their seats, stretch their legs, and answer any higher callings that occurred to them.

Unfortunately, it isn’t just the human bladder that these films strain. Four hours is a long time to be watching a film. To put it in perspective, your work day is likely only twice the time it would take to see one of these films. That’s two extra hours that the audience could be spending in any way that they see fit. And we must add to that the extra cost to the studios of making one movie the length of two. The opportunity cost of an Epic, both from a viewer’s perspective and from a producer’s perspective, is therefore much higher than that of a traditional two hour film. And that is why I think these tremendous productions have become rarer and rarer in recent times.

Nevertheless, there are aspects of the Epic genre that I miss (admittedly this is coming from a guy in his twenties, who never experienced the genre’s heyday). The pageantry, the great sweeping scores, and the sense of truly massive adventure are hard to match in films half the length. I even miss the old overtures and intermissions that would open and then punctuate the films. They were like palate cleansers, ten minutes of beautiful music to clear our minds and our expectations of the clutter of our daily lives, thereby setting the tone for the movie to follow. And I miss the fantastic adventures that came with the genre, adventures which only seem to be hollowly echoed by the majority of today’s superhero and action films.

In truth I’m not lamenting some golden age of filmmaking. There were good epics and bad ones, just as today there are good films and bad films. But I do feel that we could stand to learn something from that old genre, both in terms of spectacle and in terms of the kinds of stories that they told. They managed to combine a sense of the spectacular with a kind of grounded quality that these days seems rather rare. But don’t take my word for it. The next time you find yourself with four hours to spare, think about tracking down a copy of an old Epic, be it Spartacus, Ben Hur, The Ten Commandments, Lawrence of Arabia, or whichever strikes your fancy. I’m willing to bet that you won’t regret it. 

The Flow of Information: Film vs. Books

In my last post I mentioned that, while books can describe more types of sensory stimulus than screenplays, that wasn’t necessarily true of film. This week I thought I’d describe a little bit of what I meant by that.

Obviously, a film can never show us tastes, smells or the feelings of physical textures, and cinema has never been very good at literally representing thoughts either. But, with the slight exception of thought, books don’t show us these things any more than films do. Instead, they describe them. They provoke the reader to imagine what cannot actually be experienced through the page. The medium of prose isn’t sight, sound, taste, smell, touch and thought. It’s imagination, triggered by words. In that sense books actually have a smaller sensory repertoire than films do: words, compared to both sights and sounds together.

You might argue that this is no more than an academic comparison. After all, books are books, and films are films. But I think there’s an interesting observation to be had out of it on the nature of the two mediums.

It has to do with the flow of information. At the end of the day, both books and films are about communication. Each is designed to tell a story, and stories are made up of information. Every little fact we know about the characters, every development in the plot, and every sight, sound, thought and feeling we experience while reading or watching is a piece of information. The difference between the two mediums is how that information gets communicated. In books, we construct it ourselves based on the blueprint present in the words. The author essentially gives us instructions to produce approximately the correct information for ourselves. In films, we interpret this information through the sensory reality presented to us via sight and sound simultaneously.

So what’s the big deal? One is about imagination, while the other is about physical experience. Case closed, right? Well, not quite. If we dig a little deeper, we see that this difference imposes important limitations on each medium.

Let’s start with books. Because books communicate through words, effectively giving the reader step by step instructions to create a different reality in his or her own head, the flow of information in a book is extremely limited. No matter how quickly you read, you are reading one word and one sentence at a time. That means that only one piece of information is being processed by your brain at any given time.

And that limit in the flow of information has two important implications. First, it means that, at any given point, the reader must look where the author is pointing. You can skip ahead, and you can reread, but at any point in the book’s chronology there is only one piece of information to absorb at a time. Filmmakers try to mimic this focus of attention through composition and lighting, but even when they are successful the viewer always has more freedom of where to look than when reading a novel. Second, because words communicate meaning in a very direct way, and because the reader only has one piece of information to process at a time, that information tends to be processed in a very conscious way. The reader is almost always extremely aware of the information he is consuming and of how it is affecting him.

Films, on the other hand, communicate information through sound and image. That means that cinema is a far more sensory experience than prose. We interpret film through the same stimuli that we interpret the world we live in.

From that we can take two major lessons. First, our understanding of meaning in film is much more instinctive than our understanding of meaning in prose. Sound and image, by their very nature, work on us in a different and less conscious manner than the written word. Second, the flow of information we receive from a film is much broader than that of a book. Instead of interpreting the work one word at a time, we are inundated with many different stimuli: music, shape, depth, movement, etc. All of these communicate something to the audience, all at the same time. Even if we are aware of how individual pieces of that cloud of stimuli are affecting us, we can never be consciously aware of all of them at once.

I would argue that this difference in the flow of information makes film a much more subconscious medium than prose. Not only is the information presented through stimuli that we interpret more instinctively, but the large amount of stimuli that we are forced to interpret at once means that much of what we are seeing and hearing affects us below the level of conscious thought. Film works best when all of those stimuli come together into an illusion of reality, when we forget the music and the image and sink down into the very subconsciousness of the medium. Books, on the other hand, rely upon our awareness of the medium to deliver information, which in turn constructs the illusion within our minds. Both cinema and prose do their best to entertain, and to move us emotionally. They both try to create a seamless illusion of reality, but the way that they set about this goal is very different. One medium seeks to influence us below the level of our consciousness, while the other seeks to highjack our consciousness for its own purposes.

The Screenplay Format

I thought I’d take a break from talking about specific movies to address a particularly important piece of the movie-making process: the screenplay. I’ve divided this post into two parts. The first will talk about what makes the screenplay a unique medium of writing, and the second will provide a basic explanation of the format and some links to great screenplays past.

What is a screenplay?

I’m going to be talking specifically about Speculative (or Spec) Scripts. These are movie scripts designed to picture a film before any of the practical physical design of the film is put into place. Put simply, it is less a blueprint of a finished film than a sketch. Like a novel, a spec script is all about imagination. It asks us to form an image of what a film could be entirely in our heads, tracing out the action, the dialogue, and anything else that may be relevant to telling the story. Later on we get the cinematography, the casting, the musical choices and so on and so forth, but for now the only things that matter are the story, the pacing, and the descriptions necessary to communicate them.

But a spec script is not a novel. It’s a writing medium all to itself, and the differences between screenwriting and prose writing can be very revealing as to how screenplays actually work:

1. Economy:

Shakespeare once wrote that brevity is the soul of wit, and all forms of writing at least attempt to take that lesson to heart. The idea is simple. The length of the work, and of each line of description in it, should never be more than is necessary to effectively communicate its meaning.

But this principle of economy applies differently to prose writing than it does to screenwriting. In prose writing, the experience the author is trying to produce is comprehensive. Put another way, a novel is a finished work, whereas a screenplay is only the suggestion of what the finished work will look like. That means that the author of a novel has to provide the entirety of the experience: the sights, the sounds, the colors, everything. The writer of a screenplay ought to do no more than describe the bare minimum necessary to understand the narrative.

The net result is that, where a novelist can sometimes devote multiple pages to a single item of action, dialogue, or description, a screenwriter must condense that same experience to its most essential components and leave the rest to our imagination. Screenwriting therefore takes the universal principle of economy in writing and pushes it to an extreme that only poetry can outdo.

2. Rigid timescale:

A novel can be any length. The shortest novels tend to be around 200 pages, while the longest can be over 1,000.

A screenplay, on the other hand, is limited by the feasible runtime of the finished film. The rule of thumb for screenplay pages to film minutes is one to one. Every page will equal about one minute of screen time. And that’s quite an important restriction. Alfred Hitchcock once said, “The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.” In keeping with his advice, most films don’t stray too far from the two hour mark. That means that most screenplays have to be between 110 and 120 pages.

The result of this restriction is both a very strict pacing and, ideally, more economy. A screenplay should contain story content equal to that of a novel distilled into a far more concentrated form. Anyone who has ever tried to adapt a novel can’t have helped noticing that the same scene in their screenplay will usually be much shorter than it is in the original prose. That’s because all of the extra dialogue and description that goes into the novel gets condensed to its most essential components in the screenplay.

Of course, you might also have heard of writers “padding the runtime” of a film. That means that the writers didn’t have enough content to make the film reach feature length, and so they filled the screenplay with lots of useless extra material to increase the runtime. This is also called bad writing.

3. Limited palate:

The sensory palate of a novel is much wider than that of a screenplay (this does not necessarily hold true for novels vs. films, however, as I plan to address in a future post). A novelist can describe sights, sounds, smells, feelings, even the thoughts that a character experiences. A screenwriter is limited to just two of these stimuli: sights and sounds. At least until someone makes the mistake of Smell-O-Vision again. 

I would argue that sight and sound are the most important stimuli to telling a story, but it is nevertheless a massive restriction compared to the sensory palate of a prose writer. The art of screenwriting, therefore, while not exactly visual, is all about making the absolute most of that limited palate.

What does a screenplay look like?

Screenplays have a very specific format that often catches first time readers off-guard. Here’s a quick primer on the harder to understand components of screenplay format:

1. The scene heading, or Slugline:

Reading a screenplay, you’re going to see scene headings. By and large they look like this:

Screen Shot 2017-09-09 at 10.15.59 AM

The purpose of a scene heading is to quickly tell the reader where we are and what time it is. The first part of the heading will always be either “EXT.” (exterior), or “INT.” (interior). That, amazingly, tells us whether we are outside or inside. The second part of the heading tells us where specifically we are, whether that’s an abandoned castle, the moon, or my living room. The last part of the heading tells us whether it is “DAY,” or “NIGHT.”

2. The action:

Most of the important stuff that happens in a screenplay comes under the heading of action. It looks like this:

Screen Shot 2017-09-09 at 10.16.47 AM

All of the important visual information in the screenplay appears as action, as does any sound that isn’t dialogue.

3. Dialogue:

Dialogue consists of the name of the character centered above a block of spoken text, as you can see below:

Screen Shot 2017-09-09 at 10.17.19 AM

Sometimes a small parenthetical will appear between the character’s name and the dialogue:

Screen Shot 2017-09-09 at 10.17.55 AM.png

This means that there is some essential information on how the character is behaving or speaking the line that is not evident from the line itself and the action around it. The parenthetical fills in the gap. However, parantheticals are rarely necessary and most screenwriters try to avoid them.

Other times, you might see either an “O.S.” or a “V.O.” appear next to the character’s name, like this:

Screen Shot 2017-09-09 at 10.18.55 AM.png

An “O.S.” in this position stands for “off screen.” Basically, it just means that the character is speaking the line from a position where they will be physically present in the scene, but not visible onscreen. “V.O.” stands for “voice over,” which means that the character speaking is not physically present in the scene. Narration is usually done this way.

4. Examples and suggestions:

And that’s all you need to know in order to understand and start enjoying screenplays. You can find the screenplays to many of your favorite movies online. Some fun ones are Notorious, The Usual Suspects, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

You’ll note, as you read them, that the story often changes significantly between the original screenplay available online and the finished film. Screenplays inevitably change and develop as the project progresses. I often find it interesting to spot the differences between the initial screenplay and the finished product: sometimes the changes are for the better, sometimes not so much.

Finally, if you want to try your hand at writing some screenplays of your own, you can find free screenplay templates for Word or Pages online, or, if you’re really serious, you can spring for a professional program like Final Draft. I’d also recommend that any aspiring screenwriters read Robert McKee’s book Story, and (with a grain of salt) Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, and Save the Cat Goes to the Movies.