No More Chosen Ones

This post is going to stray a little from my usual preoccupation with movies to talk about a trend that seems to extend to fiction of all kinds. By now we’re all well used to the cliché of the pre-apocalyptic story. From classics like the Lord of the Rings, to the various iterations of Marvel Movies, to the worst schlock fantasy stories you can find, the pattern inevitably repeats itself: the villains set out to destroy the world; the heroes stop them. As exhausted as this conflict has become, it is not the trend that I want to talk about, at least not directly. Instead, I’d like to explore the complimentary cliché of a chosen one.

Now, there’s nothing new about the idea of a chosen one: someone born to vanquish evil and bring good back into the ascendancy. I don’t want to call anything a theme as old as time, but, well, it kind of seems to be: the Messiah in Jewish theology, Jesus in Christianity, and so on and so forth. Even the old Greek heroes smack a little of chosen-ness, because the nature of their lineage sets them apart for great things. The religious origins of some of these chosen ones aside, the trope is evidently tried and true. It works. Maybe we all want to believe that we ourselves are special, set apart. Or maybe we are reassured by the notion that someone other than ourselves is fated to put an end to hardship and evil, that wickedness is destined to be punished.

Whatever the reason, the chosen one trope has come to dominate much of our high conflict fiction. Harry Potter is probably the most significant example from recent times, but heroic predestination extends well beyond. Every new fantasy story – book, film, or video game – has some prophesied hero. The Marvel films are all based around the concept of a superhero, someone who is chosen by birth or by accident to have powers which literally make them super, or more than, human. And even our spy action films, like the James Bond and Mission Impossible series, tend to present characters who are in some way designated as special.

Obviously, there are good implementations and bad implementations of the chosen one in fiction. Let’s take a look at video games for an example. The Elder Scrolls series relies heavily on the notion of predestination. Everything that happens, and everything that has happened, has in some way been prophesied in the Scrolls. But the last two installments in the series implement that notion in somewhat different ways. In the most recent, Skyrim, the player protagonist is the chosen one designated to save the world. The resulting main quest is frankly the cheesiest and most uninteresting storyline in an otherwise excellent game. The player goes through the motions of each quest, all the while knowing where things will end up: a final colossal battle between the chosen one and the monster he/she was destined to slay.

The previous game, however, went with a slight twist on the theme. In Oblivion, the player does not take on the role of the chosen one, but of a random individual caught up in the chosen one’s path. He/she assists in the greater prophesied arc, but his/her own part in that narrative is not so predetermined. The result is much more immersive and engaging because, although we know that the chosen one will succeed, we do not know what fate lies in store for the player character. This humbler protagonist is more compelling because his/her victories are not foretold.

Another excellent implementation of the chosen one trope can be found in the Dark Souls games. In these, the player character is a chosen one, but with a twist. If you don’t want spoilers, skip the rest of this paragraph. In other stories, the chosen one is always destined to do something that is incontrovertibly good: the world is about to end, and only one person can stop it. But as we delve further into the lore of this particular story we find that the thing being saved is not necessarily so positive. The player character is in fact renewing the power of tyrannical deities, enacting a curse laid upon human beings to keep them in subjection. Grim as this is, it serves as a refreshing twist on the trope.

I don’t therefore want to argue that we should abandon the concept of a chosen one, or of superhuman characters. It’s a concept that can be done well, and a concept that can be done poorly. But above all it has been overdone. When we set a character apart from the usual drift of human capabilities, we are in essence saying that nothing can touch him/her. When we tell the reader, viewer or player that a character is chosen or prophesied, we are revealing the ending of the story. Suspense goes out the window because we have effectively reassured our audience that any danger we introduce is illusory. In that way, prophesies and chosen ones hamper the building of a sense of danger. They mute conflict, and thereby make it harder to draw the audience into the world of the story.

Against that, I would argue that the chosen one trope usually adds very little. More often than not we include these kinds of characters in our narratives, not because they genuinely add something, but because we have gotten into the habit of doing so. An unusual twist on the trope can go a long way towards building stronger stories. And a humbler protagonist, whose capabilities are human, and whose victories are not predetermined can go even further.


Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Screenplay

“The only kind of writing is rewriting.” – Ernest Hemingway

A lot of new writers don’t take that quote seriously enough. The University System – in particular – encourages the “one draft wonder.” Those of us who went through that system quickly developed a sense that, if you can’t get it right the first time you won’t get it right at all. But the more you write and the better you get, the more you begin to feel the truth of Hemingway’s words at a bone-level. No one can get it right in a single pass. Not even industry legends.

With that in mind, as promised, this post is going to delve into two different versions of a scene in one of the most beloved action films of all time: Raiders of the Lost Ark. The first comes from Lawrence Kasdan’s third draft. It’s available online, and I’ll place a link for it at the bottom of this post. The second is the version that appears in the final film.

Before we get started, however, I want to remind you of a point I made in my last post: The Problem of Exposition. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend going back and giving it a look-see before starting on this one. For those who are not inclined to do so, or for those who have read it but need a reminder, here’s the most important point:

Exposition, or laying pipe, is best done through conflict rather than shoe-horning it in through dialogue or narration.

Got that? Cool, on to the main event.

In this scene, Indiana Jones arrives at a bar in Nepal, searching for his old friend Abner Ravenwood, and for a vital clue to the resting place of the Lost Ark of the Covenant. Instead, he finds Abner’s daughter Marion.

In both versions, the scene begins with Marion ordering the bar’s patrons to clear out. But, in the first version, one patron refuses to leave-

Draft Three

Final Version

Now take a look at this clip on Youtube of the same scene in the final film. I’ll also include a transcription I made in case you’d rather not compare Crab Apples to Granny Smiths.



So, what do you notice about these two different versions of the same scene? We’ll start with Economy, then move on to Exposition, and finally come around to Character Development.


This is an easy one. The final version that appears in the film is half the length of the one in the third draft. Now, shorter isn’t always better. After all, no one is going to say that reading the sentence – “Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood battled Nazis to find the Ark of the Covenant, only for the US Government to take possession of it” – is better than watching the full film.  That said, in most cases a shorter version of a scene will be superior to a longer one. This has nothing to do with the length, and everything to do with the concentration of action in the scene.

Both versions of this scene cover the same amount of narrative ground, but the final version covers it twice as fast as the draft version. The same action is condensed into a concentrated form. The result is a much more intense and engaging scene.


Here we get to the reason I decided to write this post. This point flows directly out of Economy, because most of the additional content that was cut from the draft to make the final version as tight as it is came from unnecessary exposition.

Remember that exposition works best when it emerges from conflicts between characters.

In the draft version we get the following points of exposition:

  1. Marion is Abner Ravenwood’s daughter
  2. Abner died.
  3. He died in an avalanche and the body was never found.
  4. Marion survived in the meantime by prostituting herself.
  5. She ended up running the bar when the old owner went insane.
  6. She’s not happy there and wants to go back to the States, but she needs a lot of money to do it – at least to go back in style the way she wants to. She doesn’t know where she’s going to get it.
  7. Marion and Indy once had an affair. It is implied that she was underaged. She was certainly young and naive. She blames him for her current circumstances, presumably because he left and never came back. But she still has feelings for him.

That’s seven bits of information that we get in as many screenplay pages (which ought to translate to roughly seven minutes of screen-time).

The structure of the scene happens in phases:

First, we get the expositional dialogue. Marion and Indy literally talk through all of the points above, crossing them off in conversation with only a thin veneer of conflict to tie things together. It’s basically a check-list.

Next, we get a mention of the plot conflict that brings Indy here and how Marion relates to it (the medallion), before taking off with the personal conflict between them (i.e. They had an affair of some kind when she was younger, he left her, she resents him bitterly but also still has feelings for him, so they argue).

Finally, as the personal conflict winds down, the plot conflict reemerges as the dominant force in the scene. They make a deal. We get a brief resurgence of the personal conflict as Marion demands a kiss, and Indy leaves.

I’ll get to the Character Development angle on all of this in the next section. For now we’re just focused on the delivery of Exposition, which is comparatively sloppy in this earlier draft.

It’s all handled upfront, effectively a “close your eyes and swallow the pill” scenario. That in and of itself adds to the length of the scene, because it means there needs to be whole extra section there exclusively for information. Worse, there is no conflict to drive that information, which means that the interactions between the characters are broken down by factoids rather than story beats. Put simply, the story stalls for several pages while the two characters vomit up the information we theoretically need to understand the story.

But, clearly, not all of that exposition is necessary. Take a look at the following three points:

  • Abner died in an avalanche and the body was never found
  • Marion survived in the meantime by prostituting herself
  • She ended up running the bar when the previous owner went insane

None of these have much to do with the story and the conflicts at hand.

  • Abner is a character we never meet, and who we only hear about incidentally. We therefore don’t much care how he died, or what happened to his body.
  • Marion’s survival in between Abner’s death and Indy’s arrival does not have direct bearing on the story. That’s a point that could have made it in as ammunition to be hurled at Indy in their fight, but as exposition it’s irrelevant.
  • Similarly, there’s no story reason to tell us how she ended up running the bar. We only need to know that she’s there, she doesn’t like it, and she can’t get out without more cash than she can currently lay her hands on.

The final version of the scene quite rightly cuts all three of these pieces of information out. All they do is slow things down, diverting the audience’s attention from the facts and the events that do have real bearing on the events of the film.

The final version therefore has a little over half as many points of exposition to deliver. Moreover, its structure is designed to fold that information much more seamlessly into the scene’s real conflicts.

The scene begins with Indy walking in, all swagger. He tries to set things off with the plot conflict, asking about the item that Abner collected.

Significantly, he says: “I need one of the pieces your father collected.” On its surface, that’s a simple declaration of desire, a line drawn in the sand. He wants this thing; it’s his goal in this scene. But when he says, “your father,” he is also eliminating the need for any additional dialogue tying Marion and Abner together. We now know the relationship between those two, and it didn’t take any extra exposition to draw it out.

Marion, however, doesn’t give a damn about the film’s central plot at this point. She has a personal conflict to pick with Indy, and she immediately hijacks control of the scene by walloping him across the jaw.

They argue, and in the course of that argument they use facts from their shared past against one another. The conflict is driving this dialogue, not the information.

Screen Shot 2018-02-02 at 2.45.56 PM

Nothing is stated directly. And nothing is said with the sole intention of informing. We learn the backstory almost as an incidental feature of witnessing a moment of conflict between these two characters. As a result, it all feels smooth and effortless, practically below the level of conscious thought.

From there, Indy tries to bring the conversation back to the story’s main conflict. Marion doesn’t cooperate, and so Indy asks after Abner in the hopes that he will prove more willing to help.

Only, it turns out Abner is dead, which is Marion’s lever to bring the personal conflict back into the foreground. Again, the exposition becomes ammunition for the characters in their conflict. Indy seeks to use Abner to get what he wants, but instead Marion does (Yes, I know ‘use’ is too calculating a term here. She’s not thinking, “Ooh, I can use my dead dad as leverage.” But Indy bringing him up when he does changes the fact of Abner’s death from mere exposition to a key factor in the scene’s shifting balance of power).

Indy brings up the medallion and the film’s central plot again, but this time he introduces something that Marion needs: money. The central plot conflict and the personal conflict thereby snap back together, because both characters now have a vested interest in the same conversation.

We then learn about Marion’s desire to go back to the States as “a goddamn lady,” when she refuses the initial price he offers: “That will get me back, but not in style.” She doesn’t say why she wants to go back in style. She doesn’t need to.

All of the vital points of exposition from the earlier draft thereby make it into the final scene, but they are presented in a subtler and pithier way. Put simply, the information is made to serve the scene, the characters, and the conflicts between them, not the other way around.

Character Development

Finally, I’d like to say a brief word about character development in the two versions of this scene.

In the draft version, we are presented with two rather flat characters. The Indiana Jones we see here is not the Indiana Jones we know and love. He’s too calm, too in control, too bland. The quintessential uncomplicated tough guy, like James Bond, Conan the Barbarian, or a dozen other pulp heroes.

Marion is an equal cliché, summed up when Indy calls her – to our cringing sensibilities – a “tough broad.” She brings to mind all of the two-dimensional women we find in the old hard-boiled novels: a hard shell protecting a soft heart.

The final version of the scene presents us with the characters as we know them. For a fuller rundown of my thoughts on Indy, see my earlier post on The Curious Case of Indiana Jones. In the meantime, let’s just say that Indy thinks he’s an unflappable pulp hero, but he’s more characterized by his weaknesses than his strengths.

When it comes to Marion, the character we see in the final scene is – despite being less complex in terms of backstory and having spent a shorter time onscreen – rather interesting and multifaceted. She’s a woman who finds herself in a rut with no way out, life refusing to break her way, and who finds her past suddenly showing up to haunt her. Despite that, she is able to stand her ground and hold out for what she wants. But, more importantly, we get the distinct impression throughout the scene that she, like any real human being, only reveals half of what she’s thinking. Between the earlier draft and this version, she goes from a two-dimensional cliché to a character with real depth.

The key lesson in that is that informational complexity does not equate to strong characters. If not used carefully, sweeping backstories actually get in the way of character development. Subtext and conflict do far more to make a character multifaceted than brute exposition ever could.


And that brings us to the end of my argument. I’d like to thank you for sticking with me all the way through this monster of a post. I promise to make the next one shorter.

It’s my hope that you will come away from this feeling inspired to go out there and write. The improvements we see between the draft version of the script for Raiders of the Lost Ark and the final version are immense. And remember that the version I found online was already the third draft of the script. There were two that came before it, and who knows how many that came after it. The truth is that no work of art worth experiencing was ever made without revision, often drastic revision. So, whether you consider yourself a screenwriter, a novelist, or just a bungling amateur with an idea you can’t shake, get out there and write something. Then rewrite.

As promised, here‘s the link to the full third draft of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I have to warn you, it’s really different.

Show, Don’t Tell: The Problem of Exposition

If you’ve ever dabbled in writing fiction, then you’ve probably encountered the problem of exposition, often called laying pipe. “Show, don’t tell,” the ubiquitous advice goes, for novelists as well as screenwriters. The idea behind that instruction is simple: the audience believes more easily in ideas it constructs from visual and auditory clues than it does in ideas the author presents directly. Take the following example:

“The body of a woman lies on the floor, blood soaking the front of her shirt. Over her stands another woman. Perhaps you notice a certain family resemblance between the two, or perhaps you are too focused on the shock and fear in the second woman’s eyes. She takes a step back. The still smoking gun slips from her hand. As it falls, you observe a discolored patch of skin on her third finger from where a wedding ring was recently removed.”

Clichés aside, this passage is nevertheless far more interesting and believable than simply saying, “A woman shot her sister, but she meant to shoot her husband.” The passage actively involves the audience in the story by showing us a number of details and then allowing us to come up with the correct solution for ourselves. That extra involvement creates a much more immersive and believable experience, because we as audience members become complicit in the illusion. Show, don’t tell.

But this simple piece of advice can sometimes seem like a Catch-22. How do you show backstory? How do you lay out the rules of a fantasy world, express a character’s motivation, or reveal the villain’s secret plot without simply telling the audience what you want us to know? How, in short, do you handle exposition?

This is not a dilemma isolated to young writers like myself, either. Many successful writers today seem to run into the exact same problem. Any time you go to the theater it’s a safe bet that you’ll hear a great deal of exposition forced out of the mouth of one character or another. Character A might take time out from a busy conversation to tell us what he is feeling and thinking. Character B might find a handy group of ignorants to explain some key features of the world to. And the villain, having captured Character C and strung her up by her left big toe, will very likely decide to put off killing her just long enough to set us straight on his evil plan. Dialogue like this, used almost exclusively for exposition, slows down the pace of the narrative. The filmmakers are essentially taking a time-out from the story to tell us what we need to know. Worse, this kind of exposition is boring. There’s no conflict in it, only details. And details yield precious little in the way of emotional energy. The author is telling us the story, not showing it to us.

But that leaves writers with a problem. How do we explain everything the audience needs to know – that vital piece of backstory, the villain’s one weakness, and so on and so forth – without simply shoving it out through our characters’ throats?

The solution to that dilemma lies at the very heart of storytelling: conflict. Remember that “showing” does not exclusively mean presenting information in a visual manner. If it did, Shakespeare’s plays would have fallen on deaf ears, the talkie films would have died faster than Smell-O-Vision, and modern storytelling would look a lot more like pantomime. “Show, don’t tell,” simply means that we shouldn’t tell our readers and viewers what to think. We should give them the tools they need to reach the correct conclusions for themselves.

When it comes to exposition, that means that we can present information through dialogue. But that dialogue needs to push the story forward at the same time. It needs to be grounded in conflict. Put another way, if a piece of exposition is important enough to tell the audience, then it must be important to the characters and the conflicts between them. Therefore, the best way to express that information is to follow the characters through that aspect of their conflict, allowing the information to come out naturally, whether through subtext or confrontation. Exposition is thereby subsumed into action. Better still, it is conveyed almost without our conscious awareness, allowing the audience to take a far more active role in the story.

In my next post I’ll show how this principle works in action by comparing a scene in an earlier draft of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark to the final version we all know and love. In the meantime, I challenge you to look for exposition whenever you find yourself watching a film or a television show. Ask yourself, “Is this information being presented solely for my benefit? Or is it an essential part of the dynamic between the characters?” If the answer to the first question is “yes,” then ask yourself how the filmmakers might have repackaged that same information within the story’s conflicts. If “no,” think about how the filmmakers use that information to draw you further into the lives of the characters. 

Where The Last Jedi Goes Wrong

If you’ve read my earlier post on The Force Awakens, it will come as no surprise that I hesitated over whether or not to see The Last Jedi. Why should I pay to sit through yet another disappointing Star Wars film? A friend changed my mind when he sent me The Last Jedi’s scores on Rotten Tomatoes: 91% approval from critics, but only 52% approval from audiences. A disparity like that is very rare, especially for a big blockbuster movie. What’s more, I generally expect audiences to have higher approval ratings than critics, not the other way around. The oddity of that difference flared up my curiosity, and once my curiosity got going I had to see the film for myself.

I went into the theater with low expectations. No matter how many critics lauded this latest installment, I’d seen The Force Awakens, and I’d seen Rogue One. Experience therefore led me to expect a visually stunning but otherwise boring film. I did not expect to walk out of the theater feeling insulted.

What follows is an analysis of the reasons that this latest installment in the Star Wars franchise fails so completely as a story.

1.  Thin characters

The film’s characters are little more than hollow approximations of their counterparts in the original trilogy, and even in the prequels. For illustration, try describing the personalities of the characters in the original trilogy versus The Last Jedi.

Here’s my take on the Original Trilogy’s main cast:

  • Luke: wants to play the hero, helping others, but he’s a little naive. The story follows his growth from a boy worried that the world isn’t fair to a man who grounds his goals and expectations in his friends and family. 
  • Leia: serious, has a cause she’s passionate about and willing to die for, but she secretly knows that she is totally outmatched. Ultimately, she learns that fighting for a cause only works when you are fighting for those around you.
  • Han: opposite of Leia. Cocky, self-centered, but initially empty deep down. He never really learns to fight for a cause, but he does learn to fight for the people he cares about.

This the best I could come up with for some of the characters in The Last Jedi:

  • Rey: Goody two-shoes, energetic, autodidact, polymath.
  • Finn: Goody two-shoes, a little dorky.
  • Po: Cliché renegade hero-type.
  • Rose: Can I phone a friend?

What do you notice about the first group of characters versus the second group? To start with, it’s easier to bring to mind the essential character features of the major roles in the original trilogy compared to the newer films. The original trilogy’s characters leap off the screen and into our imaginations. They’re a little simplistic, a little cliché, but they nevertheless feel like real people.

The new trilogy’s characters come across more as ciphers than real people. We can think of a few sketchy traits, but we can’t really dig down into who they are without resorting to their physical situations. Rey is an orphan, Finn is a former storm trooper, Po is a great fighter pilot. But all of that only tells us what they are. It tells us next to nothing about who they are.

If we look deeper, we see that all of the major characters in the original trilogy have an easily referenceable character arc. They start out as one kind of person, and they become another kind of person over the course of the story. The change is so integral to their personalities that any real definition of their characters would be next to meaningless without it. Furthermore, we can map that change in the characters’ relationships to one another.

The characters in the newer films barely change at all. They start out as one kind of person, and they more or less end up the same kind of person. Some passing nods towards character change are given to Finn and to Po in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi respectively, but the change that occurs is ridiculously small. What’s more, even that is buried beneath a mountain of exposition, political speeches, and useless plot arcs. None of it is relationally grounded in other characters. That makes it difficult for us to believe in and attach ourselves to them.

2. Overstuffed plot

The main reason this newer set of characters is underdeveloped lies in the film’s cluttered plot structure.

Let’s take a look at the act structure of A New Hope:

  • Act 1: When the plans for the Death Star fall into Luke’s hands, he embarks on a mission to deliver them to the Rebel Alliance.
  • Act 2 (first half): Luke’s big mission goes south when he and his motley band of friends are captured by the Death Star.
  • Act 2 (second half): Luke and company turn things around, rescuing Leia and escaping the Death Star, but Luke’s mentor (Obi-wan) dies in the process.
  • Act 3: Having escaped, Luke joins with the Rebel Alliance in a final all-out attack on the Death Star.

You’ll note that I’ve divided Act 2 in half, given that the Second Act tends to be as long, or nearly as long as the other two put together. In any case, the key takeaway from this exercise is the fact that each act movement can be defined in a single sentence. One thing happens, and, more importantly, it happens to one character: the film’s protagonist, Luke.

The Last Jedi’s act structure is a comparative mess (Beware of spoilers from here on out):

  • Act 1: Rebels are being chased by the empire. They are running out of fuel to keep ahead of the enemy and they can’t get away. Rey encounters Luke, but he’s uncooperative. Po is disciplined for being too hot-headed, but he, Finn and Rose come up with a plan to save the rebels.
  • Act 2 (part one): Rey still isn’t getting any traction with Luke, but now she’s getting visions of the wicked tantrum-maker, Kylo Ren, as well. Finn and Rose are on an evil casino planet, trying to find someone to help them do MacGuffin things. Meanwhile, the rebels are still fresh out of luck.
  • Act 2 (part two): Rey and Luke butt heads some more until Rey decides that her visions of Kylo mean that she can turn him good. Finn and Rose get off the evil casino planet with the help of a crook who agrees to help them do MacGuffin things. Meanwhile, you guessed it, Po and the rebels are still fresh out of luck.
  • Act 3: Rey boards the new Emperor’s ship to try to turn Kylo back to the light. Finn, Rose and the crook board the same ship to effect Operation MacGuffin. The rebels maintain course and velocity. Operation MacGuffin fails when the crook betrays Finn and Rose, leading to their capture. Rey gets outclassed by the new Emperor, but that’s okay, because Kylo randomly and inexplicably kills his master. There is a new plan to save the rebels.
  • Act 4: Has Kylo turned good? Nope, he just wanted to kill the new Emperor and take over the throne. Rey, Finn and Rose escape. The rebels hole up in a shack and try to think of a plan while Kylo comes after them. A strange confluence of events involving Luke and Rey results in the rebels getting away. The End.

A New Hope has three acts (four if you divide the Second in two), each of which can be described in a single sentence. The Last Jedi has four acts (or five by the same count), and none of them can be summed up in under three sentences. That’s because each act consists of three storylines intercut together. It’s the kind of model that works well for a television show, where the narrative needs to be stretched out over at least eight hours, but it cramps things in a film that is only two and a half hours long.

Put simply, too much is happening here to too many people. Again, look at A New Hope. All of the major act movements are aimed at Luke: what’s happening to him, and what he does in response. In The Last Jedi we have three sets of protagonists for the major act movements to cover: Rey/Luke/Kylo, Finn/Rose, Po/the rebels. In a sense, The Last Jedi is breaking itself down into three different intercut stories. But the film only has two and a half hours to tell those stories, which means that each set of protagonists gets a little over a third of the runtime that they would in a normal film.

That’s what I mean when I say that the film’s plot is cluttered. It’s trying to stretch a comparatively small amount of time to cover the narrative ground of three different films. The result is that we don’t have any time to spend with the characters, and to explore their decisions as outgrowths of their personalities and situations. Instead, we get the impression that their decisions exist solely as a result of the plot needs of the writer.

In this regard, the original trilogy’s films are superior because they do not bite off more than they can chew. They tell the story of a small set of characters, and they ground everything that happens in those characters. As George Lucas has been fond of saying, the story of Star Wars has never really been about a galactic conflict. Instead, it’s a soap opera about a small set of characters. The result is a much cleaner story, one that gives us the time and experiences necessary for us to get to know and bond with the characters.

3. The villain problem

As I noted in my earlier post on The Force Awakens, the new films’ villains have been consistently lackluster. The primary antagonist, Kylo Ren, comes off as more of spoiled toddler than a fear-me Darth Vader type, complete with tantrums. The Last Jedi actually acknowledges this fact when Snoke scolds him, but it does nothing to address the problem by giving him a more fearsome aspect. 

Meanwhile, General Hux’s vague Nazism is undercut by his temperamental personality, making it extremely difficult to fear him.

The only villain in the film worth the name is the new Emperor, Supreme Leader Snoke. He’s certainly the scariest figure in the film, and we want to know more about him. Where did he come from? What was he doing during all of the prequels and original trilogy? Why is he so powerful? As such, he fills a vital niche in the ecosystem of the film. His immense power allows for the heroes, even such powerful heroes as Rey, to seem outmatched. And his mysterious history provides a rare item of curiosity for the viewer.

So what does The Last Jedi do with this important and mysterious figure?

…it has Kylo kill him off, almost offhandedly. Surprising? Yes. Effective? Not by a long shot.

Here are the problems with eliminating Snoke in this way:

First, his extreme age and mysterious past are set-ups for questions that need to be answered. Killing him off without answering those questions leaves us with the set-up, but no payoff. Ordinarily I would agree that superfluous backstory should be left to the audience’s imagination, but when a film provides questions it does need to make some kind of nod towards answering them. At best, killing him without paying off on those questions is a promise unfulfilled. At worst it’s a middle finger to the audience.

Second, and more importantly, killing Snoke leaves the franchise without a scary villain. The remainder of the film after Snoke’s death drags on without any strong antagonistic force to guide it. Even as the rebels are lamenting their fate and telling us that this is their darkest hour, we in the audience do not believe it. For myself, I couldn’t help thinking that, with Kylo at the helm the rebels have already won. The stakes seem nonexistent.

And that leaves Disney in a precarious position for the final film in the trilogy. The filmmakers can either find some ham-fisted way of reintroducing a real villain as the antagonist – resurrect Snoke, or blindside us with a new character – or they can shackle their story to a mediocre and unsatisfying villain like Kylo Ren. The former solution may be crude, but it is undoubtedly better than leaving us without a strong antagonistic force.

4. The vestigial act

This last point is something of a corollary to the film’s villain problem. As I noted above, killing Snoke off so early leaves the remainder of the film unbalanced, because the strongest antagonistic force in the story has already been removed. Put another way, the extreme tension posed by the confrontation with Snoke steals the climax of the story, turning everything that comes next into anticlimax.

And there is a great deal that comes next. I can’t say for certain how long the film’s final act lasted, but it felt like nearly an hour. If that’s an accurate assessment, the film’s real climax comes almost an hour before the credits roll, turning the remainder into a boring slog. If it’s inaccurate, then the last act was so tedious in its own right that it felt longer than it really was. Either way, the film ends on fumes.


All of this criticism aside, it is interesting to remember that a majority of film critics approved of the film, even as a majority of fans seem to have vehemently disapproved.

For myself, I think this is easily the worst entry in the Star Wars franchise. Even Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith had moments that entertained me. The Last Jedi was tedious and patronizing all the way through. The film has fantastic actors, great visuals, and an excellent score. But none of that could save a story whose structure and characters have so little to recommend them.

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.

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?


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.


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.



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.



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.