Coming of Age and The Power of Idealism

A British producer recently asked me why Billy Elliot and Bend It Like Beckham were such a hit with International audiences.

Both films use the Power of Idealism to fuel the conflicts at the core of their stories. These films, at their heart, are about the battle between:

■ Individual vs. Society: Each protagonist struggles with his or her individual identity vs. the “proper” role or position within the family and the larger community. These protagonists march to very different drummers than the rest of the society portrayed in the film.

■ Desire vs. Duty: Each protagonist wrestles with talent/passion and social responsibilities as a son or daughter of the family and a member of the story community. These protagonists are caught between what they love and whom they love.

■ Rebellion vs. Conformity: Each protagonist breaks barriers, by dancing/playing football, to rebel against the restrictions of the family or society. This very physical rebellion and release is the source of much of the fun in both movies. In contrast, each protagonist has a sibling who is much more willing to conform and who is implicitly or explicitly held out as a role model.

■ Longing vs. Contentment: Each protagonist desperately wants something outside of or beyond that which is offered in the confines of family and home. While others in the community are content to stay within established social boundaries, the protagonist dreams of being or doing something more unique.

These kinds of films are particularly powerful because of the underlying feeling of loss through-out. Loss is one of the emotions that resonates most deeply with audiences. The audience knows that the price of all new beginnings is the end of something else. Coming of Age or Power of Idealism films incorporate loss in several key respects:

■ The price of growing up is the sacrifice of a child-like innocence. Over the course of the story each protagonist sees his or her parents (or other beloved authority figure) as they are— human beings with frustration, failures, and feet of clay and not as the all powerful gods of childhood.

■ The price of rebellion is loss of favor and acceptance by family and society. Rebels, by definition, anger and alienate those against whom they rebel. These protagonists are threatened with severe punishment, rejection and/or ridicule if they don’t conform. The protagonist persists in spite of the high potential cost.

■ The price of leaving is a loss of communal belonging. Once the protagonist fully asserts his or her individual identity and follows a unique passion or talent there is no going back. Although the family or community might eventually embrace or even celebrate the protagonist and his or her accomplishments; the protagonist has moved beyond and transcended the community. It is clear in the narrative that the protagonist will continue to move further and further from “home” to follow his or her dreams.

These emotional elements play out in a clear distinct cycle in each film. Although they are worlds apart externally, each protagonist has a similar psychological profile internally and undergoes a parallel emotional journey over the course of the films. This story cycle is the same in all Coming of Age or Power of Idealism films.

Such strong underlying patterns resonate very powerfully with audiences. When presented in a clearly focused narrative the audience responds deeply and eagerly desires to share the experience with others. This clarity, power and emotional response makes films like Billy Elliot and Bend It Like Beckham resounding international hits (regardless of culture, race or milieu in which the story is set).

Children’s Media Conference 2014

MALORIE BLACKMAN TO DELIVER CREATIVE KEYNOTE AT
THE CHILDREN’S MEDIA CONFERENCE 2014
 

Leading children’s media event to host Waterstones Children’s Laureate

Waterstones Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman will deliver the creative keynote at this year’s Children’s Media Conference (CMC) which takes place from 2-4 July 2014 in Sheffield.  The keynote is on Thursday 3 July.

Currently in its 11th year, the CMC is the premier event in the UK for supporting children’s media and hosts a global delegation of creatives, producers and distributors of kids’ content across all media.

This year’s CMC has a theme of Child@Heart and will include an impressive array of 50 conference sessions and masterclasses featuring leading children’s media executives from around the world.

Malorie Blackman was appointed the coveted role of Children’s Laureate in 2013 and will hold the post until next year. She has written over 60 books for children and young adults, including the Noughts and Crosses series of novels (Noughts and Crosses won the Red House FCBG Children’s Book Award as well as being included in the top 100 of the BBC Big Read), Cloud Busting (winner of the Smarties Silver Award), Thief (winner of the Young Telegraph/Fully Booked Award) and Hacker (winner of the WH Smiths Children’s Book Award and the Young Telegraph/Gimme 5 Award for best children’s book of the year).  Her latest book is Noble Conflict, a story of love, violence, trust and betrayal.

Malorie is a scriptwriting graduate of the National Film and Television School.  Her work has appeared on TV, with Pig-Heart Boy, which was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, being adapted into a BAFTA winning 6-part TV serial.  As well as writing original and adapted drama scripts for TV, Malorie also regularly wrote for CBBC’s Byker Grove.

In 2005, Malorie was honoured with the Eleanor Farjeon Award in recognition of her distinguished contribution to the world of children’s books.  In 2008, she was then honoured with an OBE for her services to Children’s Literature.

Malorie Blackman says: “All children have a right to be seen, heard and represented in the arts. The stories we tell as well as the stories we are told – in whatever form – define us as individuals and as a society.  They show us who we are and what we can be.  But are the needs of our children being met?  Are all of our children being represented?  What can we do to improve the situation?”

Greg Childs, Editorial Director at CMC adds: “Year on year, the CMC continues to explore issues that are relevant to the rapidly changing children’s media landscape. We are genuinely thrilled to have someone of Malorie Blackman’s standing to deliver this year’s creative keynote. With the theme of Child@Heart at the core of this year’s conference, we are excited to hear her thoughts on what appeals to today’s child.”

For more information visit: www.thechildrensmediaconference.com.

 

Aronofsky’s Noah & Adaptation Challenges

 

Darren Aronofsky’s film, Noah, has caused controversy and consternation across the religious spectrum. Some professed atheists are none too pleased, either.  Yet, the film racked up impressive box office numbers and has scored many positive reviews in both the secular and religious press.

Those who complain about the film criticize Aronofsky’s visual style, the mass killings of flood victims, Aronofsky’s straying from specific elements in the scriptural text, and adding creative elements not present in the original Bible story.

Whether you liked the film or not, Noah is a great look at the adaptation process and the key elements in transforming a story from one medium to another.

The story of Noah, as it written in the Bible, is episodic. One action simply follows another. Instructed by God, Noah has a goal.  He sets about accomplishing that goal in a straightforward sequence of events.

There is lots of external conflict in Noah’s Bible story: the rigors of building the ark, gathering the animals, the danger presented by the rising flood waters, and the endless days of floating across a vast watery world not knowing where or when they would land. But the Biblical text provides very few relationship conflicts and Noah has no personal internal conflict.  Much is missing or omitted from the original text that needs to be present in a successful fictional story.

Scripts fail when the protagonist only struggles with external obstacles.  Our internal struggles and contradictions define what we do and what we do defines who we are.  Character is action.  A character’s internal conflict drives the character’s actions in response to any and all external conflicts. Resolving that inner conflict is what creates a character’s emotional or spiritual journey.  No inner conflict no journey. As written in the Bible, Noah has no conflicted interior life. He simply proceeds on his mission step-by-step.

Among the Nine Character Types, Noah is Power of Conscience character. Power of Conscience characters are propelled to act out of an innate sense of duty, responsibility, and righteousness.  Noah is specifically described as “a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, one who walked faithfully with God”.

Power of Conscience characters feel responsible for the greater good and for doing good. Internally, they wrestle with how far they should go in seeking justice or how much wrong should they do in the cause of right. They struggle with what is the higher duty. Is the precise letter of the law more important than the more generous spirit of the law? Which should prevail: justice or mercy? Is punishment or forgiveness the more righteous choice? What does the higher duty call them to do?  Please note: SPOILERS AHEAD if you haven’t seen the movie yet.

Power of Conscience characters fear failing in their own eyes or in not living up to their own high moral standards. They fret over how far they should go in promoting their deeply held personal beliefs or acting on their moral outrage.

Some of the best adaptations start with a question.  I don’t know him personally but I believe Aronofsky started by asking himself why, after fulfilling his mission, does Noah drink himself into near insensibility, to the point he doesn’t bother to dress himself. Aronofsky’s answer seems to be— because Noah thinks he has failed.

Noah interprets God’s command to mean that human beings have fallen into corrupt and evil ways and must be wiped off the face off the earth.  Only the innocent (animals) are worthy of surviving. Noah believes he and his family are the last humans and will be of no use once the animals are saved.

In order to strengthen Noah’s position, Aronofsky doesn’t include Noah’s son’s wives in his retelling of the story. Only one son, Shem, has a wife, Ila, but she is barren.  When a miracle occurs and Ila conceives, Noah believes the child must be killed (sacrificed to God) if the baby is a female (and capable of reproducing).

Noah’s wife, Naameh, argues for mercy. Noah is adamant about his interpretation of his mission. After Ila gives birth to twin girls, Noah remains convinced about what he must do. He burns the raft Shem and Ila build to escape.  Ila runs back into the Ark.  When Noah finds her, knife in hand, she begs to be allowed to comfort the children so they won’t die afraid.  She sings a lullaby that Noah sang to her.  When the babies quiet, Noah cannot kill them in their innocent slumber. At the expense of his mission, Noah saves the babies.  Noah believes he has failed.

Ila comes to him in his depression and tells him that human compassion, mercy, and kindness are the most important virtues.  It is impossible to fail God if you hold these things in your heart and you act for the good of another.  Ila suggests that it is God’s will that Noah discover mercy in contrast to the harsh justice he has witnessed.

Noah is an Old Testament story brought into the New Testament.  What Ila tells Noah reminds me of what Jesus tells the Pharasees when he heals a man on the Sabbath.

Matthew 12:11— “And a man was there whose hand was withered. And they questioned Jesus, asking, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”– so that they might accuse Him. And He said to them, “What man is there among you who has a sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will he not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable then is a man than a sheep! So then, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”

The letter of the law says it is forbidden to work on the Sabbath.  The spirit of New Testament teaching is that compassion, mercy, and kindness toward others are more important than Sabbath law or any other law. For the sake of compassion and generosity, Jesus ignored laws of ritual washing, laws forbidding association with women and those who were unclean, and dietary laws.  Over and over in the Bible, Jesus chooses mercy.

The role of Noah reminds me of the Power of Conscience conflict at the heart of Russell Crowe’s portrayal of Javert in Les Miserables.

 

Javert hunts Jean Valjean for decades.  Javert’s duty is to strictly enforce the law and to return all escaped convicts to prison.

Jean Valjean has the opportunity to kill Javert, and end the chase, but Jean Valjean spares Javert’s life instead.  Javert realizes his quarry is a good man.  Javert lets Jean Valjean go.

But Javert cannot live in a world where mercy might be morally superior to the letter of the law.  Javert kills himself because he cannot live with this contradiction of his rigid belief in his duty as a “man of law”.

Noah struggles with the same kind of contradiction. What is the higher duty?  Should we promote justice or extend mercy? How far are we willing to go in doing what we believe is right? How far is too far? These internal conflicts are at the heart of Aronofsky’s adaptation of the the Noah story.  They are the essential conflicts that make this brief episodic Bible story work as a movie.

#TypesTuesday – Archetype or Character Type? Wizards in Harry Potter

dumbledore-etbscreenwritingI was having a conversation with a friend the other day about archetypes. I must admit, I am not a fan. To me an archetype is a job description: a wizard, trickster, mother, hero, outlaw, seductress, judge, or mystic simply do different kinds of work in a story.

Let’s take the first job on the list, wizard. The Harry Potter book and film series features many different wizards. Each has his or her own individual kind of wizardry and distinctive personality.

That’s the problem with archetypes. There is no one way to be a wizard. There are lots of different ways to play that role in a story. Different wizards view their role or job differently, believe different things about the world, and frame their responsibilities very differently. In a story, a character’s job or role is much less important than how the person sees the world, understands that role, and fulfills his or her duties.

That’s where Character Type comes in. Character Type determines how a person views the world, sees his or her place in it, and develops a philosophy of life and love, Character Type creates innate strengths and weaknesses and determines the lessons to be learn over the arc of the story. Different Character Types are concerned about very different aspects of their role or job. For example:

A Power of Will wizard is most concerned with using his or her abilities for vengeance or to expand and defend a personal domain or to bend others or the elements into submission.  Lord Voldemort is a great example.  “There is no good and evil, there is only power…and those too weak to seek it.”

A Power of Conscience wizard is most concerned with the justice and ethics of magic and how it is most rightly or properly used.  They do not break rules or tolerate misbehavior.  Minerva McGonagall is a great example:    ‘Now, I must warn you that the most stringent anti-cheating charms have been applied to your examination papers. Auto-Answer Quills are banned from the examination hall, as are Remembralls, Detachable Cribbing Cuffs and Self-Correcting Ink. Every year, I am afraid to say, seems to harbour at least one student who thinks that he or she can get around the Wizarding Examinations Authority’s rules. I can only hope that it is nobody in Gryffindor.”

A Power of Ambition wizard is most concerned with the flash, dazzle and showy presentation required to be impressive, gain prestige, status, being popular, or acquiring a grand reputation.  Draco Malfoy is a great example:  “My father told me all the Weasleys have red hair, freckles, and more children than they can afford… You’ll soon find out some wizarding families are much better than others, Potter. You don’t want to go making friends with the wrong sort. I can help you there.”

A Power of Truth wizard is most concerned with divining oracles and prophesies or delving into deep dark hidden secrets.  They are secret keepers and it’s hard to know where their real loyalties lie.  Severus Snape is a great example:  “What made you think he’d really stopped supporting Voldemort, Professor?”  Dumbledore held Harry’s gaze for a few seconds, and then said, “That, Harry, is a matter between Professor Snape and myself.” Snape has the most surprising reveal in the story, which changes our whole view of him at the end.

A Power of Reason wizard is most concerned with the magical formulas or precise processes that lead to specific knowledge or expertise.  Hermione Granger is a great example:  “That’s what Hermione does. When in doubt, go to the library.” She is a little off-putting and can be very condescending but she is one of the smartest and best informed young wizards in the group.

A Power of Excitement wizard is most concerned with adventurous exploring, wild experimenting or creating the chaos that makes magic fun and surprising.  They hate being bored or trapped. Sirius Black is a great exmple:  “Personally, I’d have welcomed a dementor attack. A deadly struggle for my soul would have broken the monotony nicely. You think you’ve had it bad, at least you’ve been able to get out and about, stretch your legs, get into a few fights…. I’ve been stuck inside for a month.”

A Power of Love wizard is most concerned with relationship magic, bonding spells, and creating mutual alliances.  These Character Types are stalwart friends and are self -sacrificing for others.  Harry’s best friend Ron is a good example:  “We’re nearly there,” Ron muttered suddenly. “Let me think — let me think…” The white queen turned her blank face toward him. “Yes…” said Ron softly, “it’s the only way … I’ve got to be taken.” “NO!” Harry and Hermione shouted.”That’s chess!” snapped Ron. “You’ve got to make some sacrifices! I take one step forward and she’ll take me — that leaves you free to checkmate the king, Harry!”

A Power of Idealism wizard is most concerned with creating magic that is completely unique, entirely special, and is a reflection of his or her deepest passions.  These are the truly exceptional wizards, those who are the legends.  Dumbledore is a good example:  “Professor Dumbledore, though very old, always gave an impression of great energy. He had several feet of long silver hair and beard, half-moon spectacles, and an extremely crooked nose. He was often described as the greatest wizard of the age.”  Harry Potter is also such a legendary wizard, specially marked, and charged with a unique and extraordinary destiny.

A Power of Imagination wizard is eccentric, slightly dreamy and live in a world of their own.  Although unassuming, these Character Types have enormous heart and bravery.  These kinds of wizards can see and hear things others don’t or simply miss.  Luna Lovegood is a great example:  “Oh, yes,” said Luna, “I’ve been able to see them (winged horses) ever since my first day here. They’ve always pulled the carriages. Don’t worry. You’re just as sane as I am.”

Each type of wizard looks at the role of magic through very different personal lens of Character Type. Resorting to an archetypal “wizard” too often leads to stereotypical behavior that is cliched. There is no one way to be a wizard just as there is no one way to be a cop, a nurse, a priest, a mother, or a fool. Each Character Type makes the role, the job, the archetype entirely his or her own.

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Lessons from eQunioxe Scriptwriting Workshop

I am the 2013 eQuinoxe Europe workshop in Zurich.  We’ve got nine script from seven countries.  In working on all these projects one set of questions keeps coming up.

The answer to this these questions provides a critical overview of the story. If they aren’t answered clearly then it doesn’t matter how good the individual scenes might be. The story won’t add up to much or hold together properly.

The following is an excerpt from my book How to Evaluate Stories available on Amazon

What Does the Character Want?

What the main character wants is a clear and simple ego-driven goal. It is something that directly benefits the main character that he or she can physically have or obtain. It is concrete. It is specific. It is the finite object of the character’s personal desire. For example: Win the championship trophy, get the promotion, pay the rent, solve the crime, buy the fancy car, steal the jewel, get the girl (or guy), etc. To obtain the want, the character must abandon the need.

What Does the Character Need?

What the character needs is an inner ache or yearning that the character is unaware of, denies, suppresses, or ignores. It is a deeper, more abstract or intangible human longing. It is not physical or concrete. It is an emotional or spiritual urge or inner call to live up to one’s higher nature. For example: To become a better parent, to forgive another, to act with integrity, to find one’s faith, to become more altruistic, to be a more reliable friend, to face the truth, to love unselfishly, etc.
To embrace the need, the character must abandon the specific self-centered goal (or object of desire) and address more fundamental and far-reaching human concerns.

What is the Conflict Between the Want and the Need?

One of the most common problems with stories that don’t work is the lack of a clear and specific want vs. a deep and powerful inner longing.

The want pulls us through the story. The need draws us deeper into or inside the character. If this bedrock conflict isn’t clear the story won’t add up to very much.

Does the Story Clearly Distinguish the Want and the Need?

Does the main character have a specific physical or concrete object of personal desire? What does he or she want? What is the concrete physical goal or specific objective? Does the main character actively pursue this objective through the story?
Does the main character have a clearly delineated deeper human longing? What is missing deep inside the character?
What is the main character willing to sacrifice or surrender to obtain the want or to embrace the need? Is there a high cost for each choice?

Does that mean that no character ever gets what he or she wants? We know that’s not true. Characters get what they want all the time. But this happens in a one of two ways.

1) The character gets what he or she wants and finds that it is hollow:

For example, in Jerry Maguire, Jerry (Tom Cruise) gets what he wants, to get back in the game by representing a major NFL player. He finds his victory is hollow when he realizes he has no one to call or with whom to celebrate after a big win. This is when he returns to his wife and family.

In Dangerous Liaisons, Vicomte Valmont (John Malkovich) gets what he wants: To seduce the un-seducible woman. He finds his victory is hollow when he realizes he has destroyed the only woman he has ever loved and who truly loves him. The story ends tragically with his death and hers.

2) The character lets go of the want and embraces the need and then, in the classic comedic turnaround, he or she finds something even better or finds that the want comes around on the other side:

In life, this is the experience of a young couple that tries to start a family. What they want is a biological child. They try and try to no avail. They realize what they need is to start a family with a child who needs them. They adopt and are deliriously happy. What happens one year later? The wife gets pregnant. This happy turnaround happens enough in life that we believe it in fiction.

Or for example, in Pretty Woman, Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts) wants to pay the rent. That’s why she picks up Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) in the first place. It’s why she stays with him over the course of the story. When he offers to meet that want by buying her a condo (and pay her rent in perpetuity) she turns him down. What she needs is to live a life of honesty and integrity. If she accepts his deal she will always be a whore. She rejects his offer and it is that act of integrity that brings him back to her as a real suitor and a true partner (rather than as a man who is simply “buying” her).

The tougher the choice is, the better the story. Does the main character pay dearly for whatever he or she pursues and chooses? The price is the end of the long road where the character comes face-to-face with the ultimate truth. Who is the character really? This supreme price is what the audience is waiting to see. If the price is not high enough, the story suffers.

The following was an excerpt from my book How to Evaluate Stories available on Amazon

#WritingAdviceWednesday – Advice from Script Lab on Scenes

I agree with every word of the following post by Script Lab.  Writers– take this to heart!

Scenes can come in all shapes and sizes: a one-sentence establishing, a half-page aftermath, a three-page reversal, the list goes on. And clearly there’s a lot that goes into crafting a great scene: start late; get out early; maintain conflict; keep lines of dialogue brief; keep action paragraphs short; maximize white space; avoid “I” and block pages; incorporate subtext and indirection; create audience connection through suspense, mystery, and revelation; and show the story in a visually interesting way, all while writing with a unique original voice. But that’s all execution.

Screenplays are built on “What happens next?” and, therefore, the root of every scene comes down to two fundamental objectives: (1) moving the story forward and/or (2) revealing character. The very best scenes do both.

But here’s the hard part, and something I call the 100% rule: if you’re not 100% positive that at least one of these two scene objectives is necessary, you must absolutely kill it! Even if you love it, even if it’s funny, or witty, or clever, if it doesn’t move the story forward or reveal some essential complexity of character, you simply do not need it.

Children’s Media Conference in Sheffield UK

The Children’s Media Conference is the only gathering in the UK for everyone involved in developing, producing and distributing content to kids – on all platforms.

The CMC welcome delegates from TV, interactive media, games, licensing, toys, radio, book and magazine publishing and the arts and culture sector – with speakers from all those areas and beyond.

It’s the only time when delegates from across the whole industry get together and, in the UK, it’s the best and most cost-effective way of meeting people relevant to your business.

My Character Map session is on Wednesday July 3, 2013

Register now for the full Conference, for the popular Wednesday Workshops and for the new International Exchange – and of course don’t miss out on the Pizza Express Networking Dinner.

The list of speakers is growing daily in over 50 sessions and workshops, including a whole strand of “Focus On…” international business issues at the International Exchange.

http://www.thechildrensmediaconference.com

Forgiveness in Volver and Casablanca

Volver & Casablanca
The film Volver begins with a wonderful scene in which all the women of a small rural village scrub the tombstones of their dead. An unrelenting wind blows and threatens to overwhelm their efforts. But the women persist. What a stunning visual metaphor for the performance of the mundane tasks of life in the face of overwhelming grief.
We are told that these winds also fan fires that burn out of control in the village. Raimunda and Sole’s mother and father were consumed in such a fire. This is another powerful metaphor for rage and grief, the core of which is revealed in a stunning confession toward the end of the film.
After Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) and Sole (Lola Dueñas) clean their parent’s tomb along with Rainmunda’s teenage daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo). The women then visit Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave) and we learn Raimunda was estranged from her mother and Aunt Paula raised her.
Aunt Paula is nearly blind, mentally confused and forgetful. It’s a miracle she can still manage on her own. The old woman insists that she doesn’t. The girls’ dead mother, Irene (Carmen Maura) helps her out. When Aunt Paula dies, circumstances dictate that Sole attends the funeral alone. She returns with the ghost of their mother, Irene, in the trunk of her car.
Volver is a powerful story about how loss and grief are, at last, resolved. This is a very specific process that is present in every layer of laughter, horror, sadness and love in the film. It opens the path to forgiveness for Rainmunda and her mother.
We learn that Rainmunda’s father was a philanderer and a sexual predator. He sexually abused Rainmunda when she was a teenager. Rainmunda got pregnant and had her daughter, Paula, as a result. Rainmunda has kept this a secret all these years.
Rainmunda could never forgive her mother for not knowing what was happening and not protecting her. She turned her back on her mother and refused to have anything to do with her. In order to resolve her anger, grief and loss Rainmunda must revisit the past to:
1. See the situation as a whole
2. See her relative place in the situation
3. Speak the unspoken emotional communication
4. Cherish the positive
5. Let go of the rest
This process is key to resolving any loss and is outlined in great detail in The Grief Recovery Handbook by John W. James and Russell Friedman. It is an approach that is vital to any story about finding the courage to forgive.
Let’s look at how these steps are applied in Volver:
1. See the situation as a whole.
As the film opens, Rainmunda is an overburdened and overworked mother, just as perhaps her own mother was. In a repetition of the past, her own husband drunkenly attacks Rainmunda’s daughter sexually. Rainmunda has no idea this sexual attack is coming; she could not prevent it and she could not stop it.
In a stunning confession later in the film, Irene admits that she discovered Rainmunda’s abuse by Raimunda’s father/Irene’s husband. Irene killed her husband and set the building on fire. Her husband was with another woman and everyone assumed that the woman’s body was Irene’s. Irene was forced to become a “ghost,” hiding in Aunt Paula’s large rambling home and caring for the woman who took care of her daughter.
Raimunda now sees the whole situation. Her mother loved her and was as fierce on her behalf as Rainmunda was on her daughter’s behalf.
2. See your relative place in the situation.
Rainmunda couldn’t possibly understand her mother until faced with the horror of such a situation herself. Irene could not forgive herself until she saw how powerless her daughter was to prevent the same situation. Rainmunda and Irene now see one another in each other’s eyes. Each woman sees her relative place in the situation by seeing the relative place of the other.
3. Speak the unspoken emotional communication.
The unspoken communication is, of course: “I love you. I have always loved you.” As mother and daughter begin to understand each other, they rediscover the deep bonds of love and sacrifice that connect them. The power of love and the powerlessness of love bind them together. Their hearts open and they forgive each other.
4. Cherish the positive.
Rainmunda has a wonderful moment of cherishing the positive in a very funny scene about her mother’s farts. This is a stellar example of Almodovar’s quirky unsentimental portrait of these women. It is the kind of little memory that makes us love and cherish each other in all our weakness and human frailty.
5. Let go of the rest.
When Augustina, their Aunt Paula’s long-time neighbor, becomes ill with cancer the women return again to the village. Irene slips into Augustina’s house and is greeted as a welcome ghost by Augustina, who is near death herself. Another grief in the story is about to be resolved.
The body that was found in the burned building was Augustina’s mother. Irene will be able to reassure Augustina that her mother didn’t disappear on a whim to leave her alone and unloved. Irene takes charge of Augustina’s care and slips back into her purgatory world as a ghost. Her daughters let Irene go to do her penance with a quiet and simple grace.
The movie’s title song, a tango made famous by Carlos Gardel is sung by Rainmunda (Cruz), Estrella Morente provides the dubbed vocals.
I am afraid of the encounter
with the past that returns
to confront my life.
I am afraid of the nights
that, filled with memories,
shackle my dreams.
But the traveler that flees
sooner or later stops his walking.
And although forgetfulness, which destroys all,
has killed my old dream,
I keep concealed a humble hope
that is my heart’s whole fortune.
www.planet-tango.com/lyrics/volver.htm
Lyrics translated by Walter Kane
Volver is a profoundly hopeful film, despite being filled with rape, murder, incest and death. The hope that is the heart’s whole fortune is the generosity that allows human beings to forgive. Forgiveness is our amazing power to reject the poison of the past, redeem our lives and reconstruct our bond with those whom we love. (For it is those we love who have the power to hurt us the most deeply.)
This same process is also at work in Casablanca, another powerful film about resolving anger, grief and loss. When Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) walks back into Rick Blaine’s life (Humphrey Bogart), Rick goes through the same five step process to resolve his anger, grief and loss.
1. Rick must see the situation as a whole. Rick learns Ilsa had to send him away to save him from the Nazis. She had to keep her marriage to Victor Laszlo secret to protect him and others in the resistance. She had to go to Victor (Paul Henreid), who was deathly ill outside of Paris.
2. Rick must see his relative place in the situation. Victor was the hope of the whole resistance movement. The resistance would die if Ilsa didn’t go to Victor and save him. Ilsa made the only choice she could possibly make under the circumstances.
3. Rick and Ilsa speak the crucial unsaid emotional communication. They love each other, they have always loved each other and their hearts will always belong to each other. Ilsa says: “I said I would never leave you.” Rick replies: “And you never will.”
4. Rick and Ilsa are able to cherish the positive: Rick says: “We’ll always have Paris. We didn’t have it, we’d lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.” By truly cherishing that time together they have rekindled and reclaimed their love for each other.
5. Rick is able to let go of the rest: Rick says: “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” He sends Ilsa away just as she sent him away. Rick says: “If you don’t go with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, but soon, and for the rest of your life.” “Where I’m going you can’t follow. What I’m going to do you can’t be any part of.”
Like Volver, Casablanca puts Rick in Ilsa’s situation. He now fully understands her choice. He validates Ilsa’s choice by making the same choice she did. Rick sends Ilsa away with Victor because Victor’s work in the resistance cannot continue without her.
Although they are not physically together Rick and Ilsa will live forever in each others’ hearts. Their grief and loss are resolved and they are both free to go on with their work and their lives.
Here’s how to implement these steps in your film:
1. See the situation as a whole. Have your character learn, discover or expose something that fills in a crucial missing piece in the story. Your character has made some assumption that was false, incomplete, misguided or ignorant. His or her bitterness and/or anger is built on an assumption that isn’t the whole truth. He or she doesn’t fully understand what was in the other person’s heart or what the full circumstances were. A revelation, discovery or realization fills in the gap.
2. See your relative place in the situation. Your character’s bitterness, anger, loss or grief stems from a single-minded and narrow personal perspective. His or her feelings or situation were just a part of what was going on at the time. Instead of seeing things just from a personal perspective, force your character to see the broader canvas. Put your character in the other person’s situation or position. Make that person’s choice more understandable by forcing your character to make a similar kind of choice. Force your character to “walk awhile in the other person’s shoes.”
3. Speak the unsaid emotional communication. This is some form of: “I love you. I have always loved you.” Those we love have the power to hurt us most deeply. Remembering and reclaiming that love is crucial to forgiveness. Please note: This communication is not “You have hurt me deeply.” It is a positive affirmation of the other person and how deeply the character feels about him or her.
4. Cherish the positive. There is a reason nearly everyone in the world knows the line: “We’ll always have Paris.” It’s because Rick’s line speaks to the power of positive memories. No one can take those transcendent moments from us. They remind us of all that was good, true, funny and/or wonderful about a person or time we loved. Force your character to embrace and cherish what was positive about the person or situation.
5. Let go of the rest. Forgiveness is not an emotion. It is an action. Forgiveness is letting go of the hurt, bitterness and/or disappointment of the past. Forgiveness demands that we let go of that which we cannot change. It requires us to be generous with ourselves and let go of the destructive bonds that bind and imprison us. Force your character to let go of bitterness and anger. Give your character an action that offers the gift of generosity.
I often ask my students to think of someone they love who has hurt them deeply. I ask them to think about how hard it would be to take each of those five steps themselves. Then I ask them to make that process equally as hard for their characters. When you force your character to confront and resolve loss you give an amazing gift of generosity to your audience. Volver gives that gift now. Casablanca has given that gift for decades. It is your turn next.

volver8The film Volver begins with a wonderful scene in which all the women of a small rural village scrub the tombstones of their dead. An unrelenting wind blows and threatens to overwhelm their efforts. But the women persist. What a stunning visual metaphor for the performance of the mundane tasks of life in the face of overwhelming grief.

We are told that these winds also fan fires that burn out of control in the village. Raimunda and Sole’s mother and father were consumed in such a fire. This is another powerful metaphor for rage and grief, the core of which is revealed in a stunning confession toward the end of the film.

After Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) and Sole (Lola Dueñas) clean their parent’s tomb along with Rainmunda’s teenage daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo). The women then visit Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave) and we learn Raimunda was estranged from her mother and Aunt Paula raised her.

Aunt Paula is nearly blind, mentally confused and forgetful. It’s a miracle she can still manage on her own. The old woman insists that she doesn’t. The girls’ dead mother, Irene (Carmen Maura) helps her out. When Aunt Paula dies, circumstances dictate that Sole attends the funeral alone. She returns with the ghost of their mother, Irene, in the trunk of her car.

Volver is a powerful story about how loss and grief are, at last, resolved. This is a very specific process that is present in every layer of laughter, horror, sadness and love in the film. It opens the path to forgiveness for Rainmunda and her mother.

We learn that Rainmunda’s father was a philanderer and a sexual predator. He sexually abused Rainmunda when she was a teenager. Rainmunda got pregnant and had her daughter, Paula, as a result. Rainmunda has kept this a secret all these years.

Rainmunda could never forgive her mother for not knowing what was happening and not protecting her. She turned her back on her mother and refused to have anything to do with her. In order to resolve her anger, grief and loss Rainmunda must revisit the past to:

1. See the situation as a whole

2. See her relative place in the situation

3. Speak the unspoken emotional communication

4. Cherish the positive

5. Let go of the rest

This process is key to resolving any loss and is outlined in great detail in The Grief Recovery Handbook by John W. James and Russell Friedman. It is an approach that is vital to any story about finding the courage to forgive.

Let’s look at how these steps are applied in Volver:

1. See the situation as a whole. As the film opens, Rainmunda is an overburdened and overworked mother, just as perhaps her own mother was. In a repetition of the past, her own husband drunkenly attacks Rainmunda’s daughter sexually. Rainmunda has no idea this sexual attack is coming; she could not prevent it and she could not stop it.

In a stunning confession later in the film, Irene admits that she discovered Rainmunda’s abuse by Raimunda’s father/Irene’s husband. Irene killed her husband and set the building on fire. Her husband was with another woman and everyone assumed that the woman’s body was Irene’s. Irene was forced to become a “ghost,” hiding in Aunt Paula’s large rambling home and caring for the woman who took care of her daughter.

Raimunda now sees the whole situation. Her mother loved her and was as fierce on her behalf as Rainmunda was on her daughter’s behalf.

2. See your relative place in the situation. Rainmunda couldn’t possibly understand her mother until faced with the horror of such a situation herself. Irene could not forgive herself until she saw how powerless her daughter was to prevent the same situation. Rainmunda and Irene now see one another in each other’s eyes. Each woman sees her relative place in the situation by seeing the relative place of the other.

3. Speak the unspoken emotional communication. The unspoken communication is, of course: “I love you. I have always loved you.” As mother and daughter begin to understand each other, they rediscover the deep bonds of love and sacrifice that connect them. The power of love and the powerlessness of love bind them together. Their hearts open and they forgive each other.

4. Cherish the positive. Rainmunda has a wonderful moment of cherishing the positive in a very funny scene about her mother’s farts. This is a stellar example of Almodovar’s quirky unsentimental portrait of these women. It is the kind of little memory that makes us love and cherish each other in all our weakness and human frailty.

5. Let go of the rest. When Augustina, their Aunt Paula’s long-time neighbor, becomes ill with cancer the women return again to the village. Irene slips into Augustina’s house and is greeted as a welcome ghost by Augustina, who is near death herself. Another grief in the story is about to be resolved.

The body that was found in the burned building was Augustina’s mother. Irene will be able to reassure Augustina that her mother didn’t disappear on a whim to leave her alone and unloved. Irene takes charge of Augustina’s care and slips back into her purgatory world as a ghost. Her daughters let Irene go to do her penance with a quiet and simple grace.

The movie’s title song, a tango made famous by Carlos Gardel is sung by Rainmunda (Cruz), Estrella Morente provides the dubbed vocals.

I am afraid of the encounter
with the past that returns
to confront my life.
I am afraid of the nights
that, filled with memories,
shackle my dreams.
But the traveler that flees
sooner or later stops his walking.
And although forgetfulness, which destroys all,
has killed my old dream,
I keep concealed a humble hope
that is my heart’s whole fortune.

www.planet-tango.com/lyrics/volver.htm
Lyrics translated by Walter Kane

Volver is a profoundly hopeful film, despite being filled with rape, murder, incest and death. The hope that is the heart’s whole fortune is the generosity that allows human beings to forgive. Forgiveness is our amazing power to reject the poison of the past, redeem our lives and reconstruct our bond with those whom we love. (For it is those we love who have the power to hurt us the most deeply.)

casablanca1This same process is also at work in Casablanca, another powerful film about resolving anger, grief and loss. When Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) walks back into Rick Blaine’s life (Humphrey Bogart), Rick goes through the same five step process to resolve his anger, grief and loss.

1. Rick must see the situation as a whole. Rick learns Ilsa had to send him away to save him from the Nazis. She had to keep her marriage to Victor Laszlo secret to protect him and others in the resistance. She had to go to Victor (Paul Henreid), who was deathly ill outside of Paris.

2. Rick must see his relative place in the situation. Victor was the hope of the whole resistance movement. The resistance would die if Ilsa didn’t go to Victor and save him. Ilsa made the only choice she could possibly make under the circumstances.

3. Rick and Ilsa speak the crucial unsaid emotional communication. They love each other, they have always loved each other and their hearts will always belong to each other. Ilsa says: “I said I would never leave you.” Rick replies: “And you never will.”

4. Rick and Ilsa are able to cherish the positive: Rick says: “We’ll always have Paris. We didn’t have it, we’d lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.” By truly cherishing that time together they have rekindled and reclaimed their love for each other.

5. Rick is able to let go of the rest: Rick says: “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” He sends Ilsa away just as she sent him away. Rick says: “If you don’t go with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, but soon, and for the rest of your life.” “Where I’m going you can’t follow. What I’m going to do you can’t be any part of.”

Like Volver, Casablanca puts Rick in Ilsa’s situation. He now fully understands her choice. He validates Ilsa’s choice by making the same choice she did. Rick sends Ilsa away with Victor because Victor’s work in the resistance cannot continue without her.

Although they are not physically together Rick and Ilsa will live forever in each others’ hearts. Their grief and loss are resolved and they are both free to go on with their work and their lives.

Here’s how to implement these steps in your film:

1. See the situation as a whole. Have your character learn, discover or expose something that fills in a crucial missing piece in the story. Your character has made some assumption that was false, incomplete, misguided or ignorant. His or her bitterness and/or anger is built on an assumption that isn’t the whole truth. He or she doesn’t fully understand what was in the other person’s heart or what the full circumstances were. A revelation, discovery or realization fills in the gap.

2. See your relative place in the situation. Your character’s bitterness, anger, loss or grief stems from a single-minded and narrow personal perspective. His or her feelings or situation were just a part of what was going on at the time. Instead of seeing things just from a personal perspective, force your character to see the broader canvas. Put your character in the other person’s situation or position. Make that person’s choice more understandable by forcing your character to make a similar kind of choice. Force your character to “walk awhile in the other person’s shoes.”

3. Speak the unsaid emotional communication. This is some form of: “I love you. I have always loved you.” Those we love have the power to hurt us most deeply. Remembering and reclaiming that love is crucial to forgiveness. Please note: This communication is not “You have hurt me deeply.” It is a positive affirmation of the other person and how deeply the character feels about him or her.

4. Cherish the positive. There is a reason nearly everyone in the world knows the line: “We’ll always have Paris.” It’s because Rick’s line speaks to the power of positive memories. No one can take those transcendent moments from us. They remind us of all that was good, true, funny and/or wonderful about a person or time we loved. Force your character to embrace and cherish what was positive about the person or situation.

5. Let go of the rest. Forgiveness is not an emotion. It is an action. Forgiveness is letting go of the hurt, bitterness and/or disappointment of the past. Forgiveness demands that we let go of that which we cannot change. It requires us to be generous with ourselves and let go of the destructive bonds that bind and imprison us. Force your character to let go of bitterness and anger. Give your character an action that offers the gift of generosity.

I often ask my students to think of someone they love who has hurt them deeply. I ask them to think about how hard it would be to take each of those five steps themselves. Then I ask them to make that process equally as hard for their characters. When you force your character to confront and resolve loss you give an amazing gift of generosity to your audience. Volver gives that gift now. Casablanca has given that gift for decades. It is your turn next.

#TypesTuesday – Power of Conscience at the Oscars

There were several compelling Power of Conscience character who figured prominently in the 2013 crop of Oscar films. Power of Conscience characters typically wrestle with a specific set of key issues in a story. These include:

How much bad am I willing to do in the cause of good?

In Lincoln, written by Tony Kushner and directed by Steven Spielberg, President Lincoln so firmly believes in the necessity of Emancipation that he is willing to authorize all manner of arm-twising, dirty deals, and political bribery to get the bill passed.  At the time, Thaddeus Stevens, played in the movie by Tommy Lee Jones, said, “”The greatest measure in the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”

 

In Zero Dark Thirty, written by Mark Boal and directed by Katherine Bigelow, a young CIA operative called Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, is obsessed with finding and killing Osama Bin Ladin. She is involved in morally reprehensible torture in order to help track down her quarry.  She is driven and relentless, so much so that when she is successful she has no idea what to do next.

Bigelow explains in an interview, “I think what’s so interesting and so poignant for Jessica, myself, for all of us, is this idea that this woman (Maya) has spent the last ten years exclusively in the pursuit of one man and yes, at the end of the day, she triumphed, but it’s not a victory because finally, at the end of the day, you’re left with much larger questions like, where does she go from here? Where do we go from here? Now what?” Chastain adds, “I find that to end the film on that question is far more interesting than providing an answer.”

Can I find the flexibility, the forgiveness, or the mercy to make reasonable compromises?

In Lincoln, the person that has a real protagonist’s journey is Tommy Lee Jones in the role of Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens spent his political life advocating for total Negro emancipation, including the right to vote and own property. He was adamant and uncompromising. In the final, down-to-the-wire vote-taking, Stevens must turn his back on everything he has always stood for in order to assure that Lincoln’s lesser bill passes. Steven’s struggles mightily with his conscience but finally allows practicality to win.

At the time Stevens said: “Believing then, that this is the best proposition that can be made effectual, I accept it. I shall not be driven by clamor or denunciation to throw away a great good because it is not perfect. I will take all I can get in the cause of humanity and leave it to be perfected by better men in better times.”

Steven’s leap of faith was being flexible enough to allow an imperfect bill to pass because that served the greater good.

In the film, Les Miserables, written by William Nicholson and directed by Tom Hopper, prison guard Javert, played by Russell Crowe, cannot compromise his strict moral standards.  He finds it impossible to have mercy and not enforce the strict letter of the law.  What is legal is not always just.  And what is just is not always legal.  This is a great dilemma for Power of Conscience characters.  Javert is in such conflict that he would rather kill himself rather than compromise his precise and rigid sense of duty in favor of what is just and merciful.

 

In the animated film, Brave, written by Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman, and Irene Mecchi, and directed by Andrews and Chapman and co-directed by Purcell, Queen Elinor is a Power of Conscience character. She is a strict and demanding taskmaster, a perfectionist, and is driven by a strong sense of tradition and royal responsibility. Over the course of the story she finds the flexibility to recognize her daughter’s uniqueness and she learns to fully appreciate Merida for who she is.

What is the higher duty?

Power of Conscience character universally wrestle with the question of what their inherent morality and sense of duty asks of them.  These  characters fear not living up to their own internal standards or sense of propriety and decency.  They are afraid of being or becoming unworthy and must continually prove their own “goodness”  or “righteousness”. These characters don’t fear failure in the eyes of the world; they fear not living up to their own (often impossibly high) moral or ethical standards.

As I said before: What is just is not always legal or proper. And what is legal or proper is not always just.  What is more important?  Is the spirit of the law or the letter of the law more important?  When is it right to be pragmatic and flexible rather than unbending and unyielding in your standards? When is being flexible and pragmatic being lax and immoral? Power of Conscience characters provide a fascinating glimpse into one set of humanity’s great dilemmas.

 

Spielberg’s Lincoln

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, written by Tony Kushner, was neglected at the 2013 Oscars except for recognition for Daniel Day-Lewis’ stunning performance and a craft award for production design.

When it was released I pegged it as a worthy and important film, filled with fascinating historical detail– but also as ponderous and episodic. The film suffers from the same problems Spielberg had with War Horse and Amistad.

War Horse was the definition of an episodic narrative with very little character development. A brave courageous boy acquires a brave courageous horse, the boy loses horse, he is determined to find horse again, he succeeds, and brings the horse home. A goal is set and we watch it being accomplished step-by-step. Read my review of War Horse here.

In Lincoln, a bold visionary president wants to pass a bold visionary bill to emancipate the slaves in the South, he is determined to do this at all costs (and is willing to do whatever back room deals are necessary to push his agenda forward). We watch him step-by-step accomplish his goal.

Daniel Day-Lewis does give the performance of a lifetime in Lincoln. He is stunning and astonishing in the role but his performance is most of the character development that there is in the story. Lincoln is not a fully developed protagonist. He has no inner conflict. Lincoln overcomes nothing in himself to succeed.

There is plenty of external conflict in the battleground horrors of the American Civil War. There is a tremendous amount of relationship conflict– different people in the story clash with each other over every aspect of the political situation. But there is no personal inner conflict for Lincoln. He is very clear and determined about what he wants to accomplish, he shrewdly proceeds to make it happen, and he succeeds.

The person in the film that has a real protagonist’s journey is Tommy Lee Jones in the role of Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens spent his political life advocating for total Negro emancipation, including the right to vote and own property. He was adamant and uncompromising. In the final, down-to-the-wire vote-taking, Stevens must turn his back on everything he has always stood for in order to assure that Lincoln’s lesser bill passes. Steven’s struggles mightily with his conscience but finally allows practicality to win. When the bill passes Stevens takes the original copy home to his Negro wife/mistress and we see his dedication to freedom comes from a very personal place.

This problem with identifying the protagonist is reminiscent with an equal failure in Spielberg’s The Terminal.  In that film a minor character had the most emotional impact and made the biggest emotional sacrifice.  Read my review of The Terminal here.

In Amistad, Spielberg told too large a story. That film detailed the capture of a ship piloted by slaves who mutinied against their masters. The situation resulted in several trials and appeals to determine their freedom. The story was filled with fascinating historical detail but those details over complicated the story.

Amistad, like Lincoln, was populated by numerous interesting characters but didn’t have a central strong personal journey. The strongest, most emotionally intimate journey in Lincoln is Thaddeus Steven’s. Lincoln is beautifully cast and wonderful to look at but, for me, is more a history lesson than a personal story.