Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

BOY-ACADEMY32Some books just don’t make good movies, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a prime example.  I read the book and loved it. The book was too dense and complex to make a satisfying movie adaptation.  A prime example is the appearance of The Renter (Max von Syndow).  He is a confusing character in the film but plays a large and richly detailed role in the novel.

David Denby writing in The New Yorker puts his finger on another problem:

The boy’s voice, as Foer creates it, is a babbling brook of hopes and questions and bits of information on every imaginable subject. In the novel, we can enjoy all of this heroic spieling and exploring as a form of antic play. It never occurs to us that an actual little boy, however bright, however maddened by grief, could talk this way. Oskar’s voice is a writer’s virtuoso construction, and Foer combines it with the voice of Oskar’s grandfather, photographs of falling bodies, odd dialogues, lists of numbers, garbled paragraphs, nearly blank pages, and many other typographical adventures. The novel is a kind of postmodernist collage stained with tear.
Much of what Oskar says in the book is amusingly beside the point. Onscreen, however, the sound of a hyper-articulate boy talking semi-nonsense becomes very hard to take.

The boy’s voice, as (author Jonathan Safran) Foer creates it, is a babbling brook of hopes and questions and bits of information on every imaginable subject. In the novel, we can enjoy all of this heroic spieling and exploring as a form of antic play. It never occurs to us that an actual little boy, however bright, however maddened by grief, could talk this way. Oskar’s voice is a writer’s virtuoso construction, and Foer combines it with the voice of Oskar’s grandfather, photographs of falling bodies, odd dialogues, lists of numbers, garbled paragraphs, nearly blank pages, and many other typographical adventures. The novel is a kind of postmodernist collage stained with tear… Much of what Oskar says in the book is amusingly beside the point. Onscreen, however, the sound of a hyper-articulate boy talking semi-nonsense becomes very hard to take.

I agree.  The “voices” in the book did not translate well into film, which is way too literal to capture the author’s delicacy, humor, and fantastical imagination.

The Descendants

thumb-----descendants11Alexander Payne just won the Best Adapted Screenplay award from the WGA for The Descendants.  Frankly, I am mystified.  I am a fan of both Payne and George Clooney but the movie left me cold. J. Hoberman writing in The Village Voice is spot on:

Despite the large, and talented, cast that Payne has assembled, The Descendants revolves entirely around its supremely amiable star. But, even with the crutch provided by an insistent voiceover, Clooney’s part is underwritten. Moreover, the actor’s own blessings are so evident that it’s hard to accept him as the beleaguered (if fabulously wealthy) everyman that the movie demands he be. With supporting characters called upon to react toward him or develop around him as necessary in a given situation, the narrative feels less like an unfolding novel than like an inflated short story. Slowly rolling downhill, The Descendants takes a turn or two but is basically always en route toward the reconciliation that’s a foregone conclusion.

The film offers little surprise and less character development.  We are told that Matt King (George Clooney) is a workaholic but there is absolutely NO evidence that’s true.  Even in the midst of a family crisis, like a spouse being serious injured and in a coma, a workaholic’s cell phone would keep ringing, his blackberry would keep updating, and his emails would continue to pour in.  King’s electronic devices are strangely silent.  Did the secretary at his busy law practice forget his phone number?  Did all his appointments get mysteriously cancelled? Did his clients suddenly have no crises of their own which need his attention?  We never see King wrestle with the urgency of two competing emergencies or have to battle where to put his attention– on the personal or professional.  He is totally focused on his immediate family situation with absolutely no outside interference.  This begs credibility for anyone who has ever been torn between a personal emergency and a demanding job.

King’s daughters allegedly don’t really know their dad (“I’m the back-up parent”).  Yet he immediately gathers his daughters to his side.  Wouldn’t it be easier to just leave them in boarding school, hire a nanny, or throw money or other resources at his kids if he were truly as disengaged as he is alleged to be?  He even puts up with a goofy social inept boyfriend as a travel companion to make the trip easier on his daughter.  There is some initial teen and tween snottiness over the course of the family road trip but King very quickly forms a warm and loving bond with his daughters.  Sure there is squabbling, bickering, and mocking but that is the nature of kids. It seems there is much more animosity and bitterness directed toward their comatose mom.  His older daughter is furious at her mother for cheating on King with a glad-handing over-eager real estate broker.  Immediately taking her father’s side in no way indicates she thinks her father is a jerk, a bad guy, or a lousy father.  This is the story of a preoccupied but relatively good dad who becomes a somewhat better dad.  Not a very dramatic character arc.

If a woman is going to cheat on the wealthy, charming, handsome King (he’s GEORGE CLOONEY) with a slightly dweeby somewhat desperate real estate broker  I want to know why.  Is she choosing a lesser man to embarrass or humiliate her husband, does her new lover put her husband to shame in some important respect, or is there some manipulative plot afoot having to do with the family land deal?  The affair is a mystery and just isn’t credible.  Her father does accuse King of being too cheap to buy his daughter her own boat but, again, we never see any evidence or action that indicates he is stingy in any of his dealings.  He doesn’t complain about the cost of bring the obnoxious boyfriend along.  He doesn’t scrimp on meals or anything having to do with the road trip.  The script tells us lots of things about various characters but never show us these characteristics in action.  Again, not the essence of compelling drama.

Then there is the land deal itself.  The King family came into their inheritance because of an interracial marriage between a great-great-grandfather and a Hawaiian princess.  This union had to be scandalous in its day.  Yet now, when interracial marriage is common in Hawaii and elsewhere, there isn’t a single Polynesian family member to be found.  What is with that?  If this is a film about family and if disposing of the family property gets so much screen time– why aren’t family cultural issues and differences at the heart of the dispute.  Any one who has a mixed family of any kind knows these kind of cultural differences surface under stress particularly when vast sums of money is involved.  Yet, even though King, has the deciding vote, his family is unusually passive and mellow when it comes down to the actual decision.  Little drama here and even less credibility.

Much has been made of the Hawaiian setting and the film’s sense of place.  Yet, given the white-bread nature of the family and lack of cultural specificity, I think the film could just as easily be set in Minnesota and the dispute be over acres of pristine lake front property.  Other than the lush landscape shots there is nothing in the story that makes it particularly Hawaiian.

I’ll close with a summation from Dana Stevens writing for Slate:

This is the setup for exactly the kind of story Payne does best: road movies about less-than-heroic oddballs on quests that are at once transformative and essentially ridiculous. I was so excited to see what he’d do with this misfit crew once he rounded them up and sent them on their journey. But The Descendants squanders the comic energy of its opening act. Once the Kings get to Kauai, Payne seems content to sit back and watch as the family pads around the spectacular shoreline, alternately squabbling and bonding. Matt eventually has a brief, awkward encounter with the man who made him a cuckold, and also a meeting with his barfly cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges), who has his own plans for that chunk of family property. Amid all this desultory beachcombing, Matt learns hard lessons about his wife, his daughters, and himself—but they’re lessons any discerning viewer already saw coming a mile away.

I found the film predictable, lacking in character development, with a script that continually tells us rather than shows us.  This is not a recipe for a Best Adapted Screenplay award.  Best Director perhaps, there some really engaging and tender moments in the performances, or Best Cinematography perhaps, the views are gorgeous– but in no way is this underwritten screenplay a Best in the writing category.

The Artist

1205-LRAINER-The-Artist_full_600The Artist is my pick for 2012 Best Picture Oscar.  It is exquisitely crafted, filled with heart, and the epitome of “show don’t tell.”  It is a film about the end of the silent era in motion pictures and is silent itself and filmed in black and white to boot.

Alfred Hitchcock felt that the silent era ended too soon.  He believed that movies would have been richer overall if images were allowed to “speak” a little longer without the distraction of sound– that there was much more to learn about creating a visual vocabulary from the silent era before sound usurped this method of filmmaking.

Hitchcock never did completely trust sound in his own work and believed the audience should be able to follow the story if somehow the sound went out.  I wonder how many filmmaker today could make a film “speak” mostly through image and action. Clearly, writer-director Michael Hazanavicius is one of the rare filmmaker-artists whose pictures are worth a thousand words.

Hazanavicius’ film, The Artist, is about George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) a silent movie star, part swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks and part romantic swoon-master Rudolph Valentino.  He is at the top of his game– the undisputed King of Hollywood.

George is a Power of Idealism character, clearly extraordinary in every way. We meet him at the end of his era, although he doesn’t know that or accept it until the end of the film.  Just as George is about to become an anachronism he accidentally meets Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) at a big premiere.  He catches her as she stumbles/is pushed out of the crowd and into his arms.  A photographer captures the moment on film and the embrace makes the tabloids.  On the strength of that image, she manages to get a job as an extra in George’s next film.

Ty Burr writing in The Boston Globe describes what happens next:

There’s a wonderful sequence early on in which Valentin and Peppy film four takes of a scene where they have to waltz across a crowded dance floor, the movie star and the extra falling harder for each other with each cut. Without color and sound, their emotions are so close you can almost take them in your hands, and that’s what sometimes seems to have gone missing from movies – the intimacy of two people filmed without artifice.

Later there is another lovely scene in which Peppy drapes herself in George’s tuxedo coat, hanging on a coat rack, in such a way that it looks like he holds her in an intimate embrace.  It is a jewel of a scene twinkling with graceful physical comedy and bright with love and longing.

George, unfortunately, is on the way down just as Peppy is on the way up.  His studio, Kinograph, run by Al Zimmer (John Goodman) is scrapping George’s next silent film in favor of a slate filled only with talking pictures.  George doesn’t believe sound is here to stay and finances his next adventure film himself.  Of course it’s a flop.  The public has moved on and so has Peppy.  She opens the same day in her first big blockbuster.

George spirals downward.  He loses everything except Peppy’s continuing love and admiration.  Bill Goodykoontz writing in The Arizona Republic sums up the film’s appeal perfectly:

There are nods to more silent movies and stars than you’ll care to tally. That’s fun, as far as it goes, but what’s important is that Hazanvicius and Dujardin create characters and situations that feel original — situations that, despite the broadly played bits familiar to silent-film fans, have the same heart found in the movies of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton.
Credit Dujardin for a lot of that. His grace and carriage allow him to float through the dance scenes, he’s funny in the comic bits, yet he brings enough weight to the down-and-out segments to break your heart. Bejo, too, is outstanding as the star who never forgets where she came from — or who inspired her.

There are nods to more silent movies and stars than you’ll care to tally. That’s fun, as far as it goes, but what’s important is that Hazanvicius and Dujardin create characters and situations that feel original — situations that, despite the broadly played bits familiar to silent-film fans, have the same heart found in the movies of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. (LH: The movie displays exactly the kind of heart, gentleness, and generosity of spirit sadly lacking in most movies today.)

Credit Dujardin (playing George) for a lot of that. His grace and carriage allow him to float through the dance scenes, he’s funny in the comic bits, yet he brings enough weight to the down-and-out segments to break your heart. Bejo (playing Peppy), too, is outstanding as the star who never forgets where she came from — or who inspired her.

Peppy is desperate to help George and finally hits on something he can do without speaking– dance. He takes a leap of faith and accepts a smaller more ordinary role in her film. The two dance off into the sunset.

One of the most amazing aspects of the film is how well it captures the tone, style and even movement of the times.  The actor’s facial expressions and physicalization is absolutely authentic to the era.  (Watch any film from the 20’s or 30 to see for your self.) Boardwalk Empire, set in the same era, as good as it is in many respects, is clearly modern actors playing a period piece. The actors in The Artist fully and completely inhabit the era with every ounce of their being.  That is a stunning achievement. America was a different place in the silent era and we are transported back with ease, grace, style, charm, and heart.

The Artist truly is the Best Picture of 2012.

Hugo

imagesI feel like the Grinch that stole the Oscar joy– Martin Scorsese’s  Hugo is yet another acclaimed Oscar-nominated film I didn’t like.  These critics echo my sentiments exactly–

The plot of Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s much-anticipated foray into 3D filmmaking, hinges on a clockwork mannequin. He’s an outstanding piece of craftsmanship, carefully fashioned from antique components, terrifyingly expensive-looking and beautiful to behold. But the mechanisms whirring away inside him are plainly visible – for all the technical wizardry required to piece him together, he’s still very obviously not alive. He’s a perfect metaphor for the entire film.
Robbie Collin The Daily Telegraph, UK
The plot of Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s much-anticipated foray into 3D filmmaking, hinges on a clockwork mannequin. He’s an outstanding piece of craftsmanship, carefully fashioned from antique components, terrifyingly expensive-looking and beautiful to behold. But the mechanisms whirring away inside him are plainly visible – for all the technical wizardry required to piece him together, he’s still very obviously not alive. He’s a perfect metaphor for the entire film. Robbie Collin, The Daily Telegraph, UK
Here’s what a friend has to say on Rotten Tomatoes:
Yes it is magical. And yes, the effects and photography and direction are amazing. But it doesn’t add up. The main problem is that Hugo, the central character, is not interesting. Everyone around him is colorful and fascinating, but his needs and destiny should be the driving force behind the pic. Lots of slapstick, and frenetic action, but little of it is organic to Hugo’s main problem – so a feeling of emptiness prevails, and you wonder why you don’t feel anything after it’s over. Because the plot resolution is ‘solved’ be a series of random diversions. Frank Gannon
Other critics agree:
Audiences are sure to turn out for “Hugo” in huge numbers, since its spectacle functions in the service of a reunion fantasy that restores the young hero and the aged Méliès to their proper places in the world. Yet thematic potency and cinematic virtuosity—the production was designed by Dante Ferretti and photographed by Robert Richardson—can’t conceal a deadly inertness at the film’s core.  Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal
Despite the connotations of a heart-shaped key, the two leading children never seem to connect on a level deeper than ordinary friendship. Worse than that, the major element that changes in the movie, involving the boy’s relationship with the old toy-shop owner, is accomplished accidentally — not because Hugo is trying to save Georges’ soul. All of these aspects are ones that Dickens would have made blossom with emotion: Scrooge’s transformation, Pip’s awed adoration for Estella in Great Expectations, the cruelty of authority figures suppressing children’s dreams. Gorgeous as Hugo is, it never feels like childhood, never delivers the terror, the sense of injustice at grown-up rules, the exhilaration of discovery when all is new.  Kyle Smith, New York Post
The result is a movie that’s kinetic yet slow, whose joys are architectural more than spiritual. The camera swoops through corridors and skirts around corners, with every bit of art decoration in perfect focus, every metal surface gleaming. Sometimes the movie’s beauty is its own reward. An automaton at the center of the story, with its human face looking mournful and impassive, is one of the year’s great movie props, an evocative masterpiece of design. But the human characters feel mostly under glass, more emblematic than real, their pains and terrors just elements in the landscape. Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle
Why does the film feel so empty?  The characters are in service to the plot and not the other way around.  If a story is to endure, then plot must come from character. Otherwise, the filmmakers are pushing the characters around like chess pieces on a chessboard, with little regard for the authenticity of their emotional journey.  That is the case in Hugo.
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Characters that exist to advance a plot tell us nothing about the human condition. They don’t speak to us profoundly about how our choices determine who we are. They don’t move us to reflect on our own lives or on our relationships with others. They are amusements that last little longer than a thrill ride at a theme park. Those rides can be fun and exciting but they never stick with us for long. They make no powerful contribution to our collective humanity.
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I believe the stories we tell ourselves and tell each other have the power to change who we are. If you want to change your relationship with someone, then you have to change the story. Stories can change lives. Before we can become something we have to imagine how to do that and then construct a narrative that makes the change possible.
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If you’ve ever attended one of my classes or seminars, you’ve heard me say that storytellers are the most powerful people on earth because they have the power to move the human heart. There is no greater power. You cannot move hearts by relying on plot mechanics, set design or masterful camera direction. You have to illuminate, through your characters, what exactly it is to be truly and fully human– how we fall short and how we reach up and touch the stars.

#WritingAdviceWednesday – Average Is Over

Friedman_New-articleInlineI saw this in an Op Ed piece by Thomas L. Friedman in the New York Times and I believe it applies as much to writing in this market as to any other kind of job:

In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could earn an average lifestyle. But, today, average is officially over. Being average just won’t earn you what it used to. It can’t when so many more employers have so much more access to so much more above average cheap foreign labor, cheap robotics, cheap software, cheap automation and cheap genius. Therefore, everyone needs to find their extra — their unique value contribution that makes them stand out in whatever is their field of employment. Average is over.

Okay– so why are there so many average or sub-par movies around?  Because those all come attached with Big Names.  If you are trying to get noticed today you either need Big Name attachments or an outstanding script.  A good script won’t make it any more.  A great script probably won’t either.  You need an outstanding script.  You need to be, in sports terms, a number one draft pick.

It’s more important than ever to hone your craft.  Be meticulous in your presentation. Be fresh. Be original. And don’t fall into common kinds of errors that derail your story enough to make it a “pass” rather than a “highly recommend.”

I’ve distilled everything I know about story analysis into a short eBook.  It will be my first Kindle, Amazon, iBooks, Sony Reader, Nook publication.  It’s priced at $4.99 for an introductory time.  Let me know if you’d like to be on the pre-order list. You can contact me through the site or leave a comment– I can get your email address on the back end.  It’s not published in the comment.

Plot vs. Character

plottooldI saw the article, partially quoted below, on a website called Brain Pickings.  The essay reminds me of much of what is wrong with movies today.  They are driven by plot.  These movies feature interesting, suspenseful, hilarious or adventurous circumstances in which a character moves from point A to point B with great action sequences, excellent special effects, stirring music and wonderful camera work– all of which adds up to no understanding of the basic human struggle that makes for compelling drama.  If you want to  replicate the plot driven approach then this information is for you–

You are about write a story. How shall it begin? Perhaps there is a single conflict that needs to be resolved. Will my story have a happy ending or a sad ending? Perhaps the conflict has one of several distinct oppositions: man vs nature, man vs. technology, man vs. god or man vs. self.
In 1894, French critic Georges Polti recognized thirty-six possible plots, which included conflicts such as Supplication, Pursuit, Self-sacrifice, Adultery, Revolt, the Enigma, Abduction, and Disaster. In 1928, dime novelist William Wallace Cook, author of Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots, did him one better, cataloging every narrative he could think of through a method that bordered on madness. His final plot count? 1,462.
While still a young director in England, Alfred Hitchcock requested the book from America, and the creator of the courtroom drama Perry Mason claimed he had learned a great deal from it. In 1931, screenwriter Wycliffe Hill declared that he had invented a “Plot Robot,” which turned out to be nothing more than cardboard wheel of options that would help you choose a plot in the same way you might choose a color for your living room.
Plotto was far more complex, and despite its careful categorization, still exceedingly hard to understand. It’s a narrative Dewey Decimal System of sorts, where each character-type is given a letter: the man is A, the woman is B, their relatives, such as a father or mother, would be F-A or M-B, and anything mysterious, be it a stranger or a strange object, is given the designation X, that ultimate letter of mystery. Conflicts have their own groupings, such as Love and Courtship, Married Life, Mystery, Misfortune, Idealism, Personal Limitations, Revelation, Helpfulness, Craftiness Stimulation, Mistaken Judgement, and Deliverance.
Each narrative in Plotto begins with “Masterplots” which are made up of several beginning, middle, and end clauses (e.g. “A person in love > Falling in love when certain obligations forbid love > Pays a grim penalty in an unfortunate undertaking.”) These permutations, which can number in the hundreds, are subdivided once again according to character and conflict into specific situations, the more than 1,462 individual plots that make up the bulk of Plotto.
You are about write a story. How shall it begin? Perhaps there is a single conflict that needs to be resolved. Will my story have a happy ending or a sad ending? Perhaps the conflict has one of several distinct oppositions: man vs nature, man vs. technology, man vs. god or man vs. self.
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In 1894, French critic Georges Polti recognized thirty-six possible plots, which included conflicts such as Supplication, Pursuit, Self-sacrifice, Adultery, Revolt, the Enigma, Abduction, and Disaster. In 1928, dime novelist William Wallace Cook, author of Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots, did him one better, cataloging every narrative he could think of through a method that bordered on madness. His final plot count? 1,462.
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While still a young director in England, Alfred Hitchcock requested the book from America, and the creator of the courtroom drama Perry Mason claimed he had learned a great deal from it. In 1931, screenwriter Wycliffe Hill declared that he had invented a “Plot Robot,” which turned out to be nothing more than cardboard wheel of options that would help you choose a plot in the same way you might choose a color for your living room.
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Plotto was far more complex, and despite its careful categorization, still exceedingly hard to understand. It’s a narrative Dewey Decimal System of sorts, where each character-type is given a letter: the man is A, the woman is B, their relatives, such as a father or mother, would be F-A or M-B, and anything mysterious, be it a stranger or a strange object, is given the designation X, that ultimate letter of mystery. Conflicts have their own groupings, such as Love and Courtship, Married Life, Mystery, Misfortune, Idealism, Personal Limitations, Revelation, Helpfulness, Craftiness Stimulation, Mistaken Judgement, and Deliverance.
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Each narrative in Plotto begins with “Masterplots” which are made up of several beginning, middle, and end clauses (e.g. “A person in love > Falling in love when certain obligations forbid love > Pays a grim penalty in an unfortunate undertaking.”) These permutations, which can number in the hundreds, are subdivided once again according to character and conflict into specific situations, the more than 1,462 individual plots that make up the bulk of Plotto.
On the other hand– I believe that if you want your stories to endure, then plot must come from character and not the other way around.  Otherwise you are pushing characters around like chess piece on a chess board, with little regard for the authenticity of their emotional journey.  Characters that exist to advance a plot tell us nothing about the human condition.  They don’t speak to us profoundly about how our choices determine who we are.  They don’t move us to reflect on our own lives or on our relationships with others. They are amusements that last little longer than a thrill ride at a theme park.  Those rides can be fun and exciting but they never stick with us for long.  They make no  powerful contribution to our collective humanity.
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I believe the stories we tell ourselves and tell each other have the power to change who we are.  If you want to change your relationship with someone– then you have to change the story.  Stories change lives.  Before we can become something we have to imagine how to do that and construct a narrative that makes the change possible.
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I have often said that storytellers are the most powerful people on earth– because they have the power to move the human heart.  There is no greater power on earth.  You cannot move hearts by relying on plot mechanics.  You have to illuminate what exactly it is to be truly and fully human.  How we fall short and how we touch the stars.

#ThinkpieceThursday – The Adventures of Tintin: Another Spielberg Misstep

tintin-movieIt’s hard to understand how a seasoned storyteller like Steven Spielberg can make such basic mistakes in both War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin.

One of the most common problems with scripts 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 script won’t add up to very much.

Let’s look at the simple issue of who is the protagonist in Tintin. The protagonist in a story is the central character whose actions set off the chain of events that pushes the story forward. So far so good.  Tintin buys a model ship that holds a long-hidden clue and sets off a chase for treasure. The protagonist must have a physical goal in the story that he or she actively pursues.  The goal for young Tintin is clear enough, solve the mystery and find the treasure. This is what TinTin wants.

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 stand up for one’s beliefs, to become a better parent, to forgive another, to act with integrity, to find one’s faith, to become more altruistic, to be a better friend, to face the truth, to love unselfishly, etc.

To embrace the need, the character must abandon the specific goal (or object of desire) and address more fundamental and far-reaching human concern. One of the most common problems with scripts that don’t work is the lack of a clear and specific want vs. a deep and powerful inner longing.

This is the case in Tintin.  There is plenty of external conflict in the chase. There is a good amount of relationship conflict in the centuries old feud between the Haddocks and Rackhams.  But there is no inner conflict for Tintin. There is nothing the boy needs to over come in himself in order to succeed.  He falters for a very brief moment late in the film but is immediately cheered up and on his way without missing a beat.

Captain Haddock goes from being an irresponsible drunk with low self esteem to someone who sobers up and rediscovers his own self-worth.  He is no longer intimidated by his illustrious ancestor and realizes he has courage too.  Tintin, like the young  protagonist in War Horse, is as plucky, courageous, determined and resourceful in the beginning of the film as he is at the end of the film.

At the climax of a film the question is, who makes the biggest sacrifice? Who pays the biggest price? Who undergoes the most powerful personal transformation. That person is the protagonist. It doesn’t matter how big a star or how well known a figure is “supposed” to be the protagonist.  It doesn’t matter how much screen time the “supposed” protagonist has.  If some other character makes a bigger personal sacrifice, is more powerfully transformed or pays a bigger emotional price, he or she is the protagonist.  If a secondary character plays this role the film will disconnect emotionally. That is the case with Tintin.

Perhaps the character worked better in a comic strip where Tintin acts more as a narrator/journalist telling someone else’s story.  But this is a movie and the requirements are different.  Mistaking which character is the protagonist is one of the most common reasons why a film doesn’t work emotionally for the audience. Spielberg should know better.

War Horse – Spielberg Loses His Way

War-Horse-Movie-poster-Film-review-e1324422829991Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is 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.

The film is beautifully shot but is low on emotional impact and, strangely, low on sacrifice.  Both the boy and the horse survive by a serious of amazing and miraculous coincidences.  A mediocre script in even the hand of  a master director pumped up by an overly emotional score still makes a mediocre movie.

How did War Horse go so wrong?

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 clear. It is simple. 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 better 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 concern.
What is the Conflict Between the Want and the Need?
One of the most common problems with scripts 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 script won’t add up to very much.

What the main character in a movie wants is a clear and simple goal.  It is something that directly benefits the protagonist 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. In War Horse the boy’s want or goal is to find the horse and bring him home. To obtain the want, however, the character must abandon the need.  That personal conflict is the essence of good drama.

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 stand up for one’s beliefs, to become a better parent, to forgive another, to act with integrity, to find one’s faith, to become more altruistic, to be a better friend, to face the truth, to love unselfishly, etc.

To embrace the need, the character must abandon the specific goal (or object of desire) and address more fundamental and far-reaching human concern. One of the most common problems with scripts that don’t work is the lack of a clear and specific want vs. a deep and powerful inner longing.

That is the case in War Horse.  There is plenty of external conflict in the family’s poverty and the horrors of war.  There is a good amount of relationship conflict– different people in the story clash about all sorts of things. But there is no inner conflict. There is nothing the boy needs to over come in himself in order to succeed.  He is as plucky, courageous, determined and resourceful in the beginning of the film as he is at the end of the film.

It’s astonishing that in a film about war there is very little sacrifice for the good of others.  The boy is not changed by his experiences and no one else is much changed either.  The relentlessly upbeat ending is ridiculous in the face of the devastation of “The Great War” which so profoundly changed everyone and everything in Europe.

What the main character wants pulls us through the story. The need draws us deeper into or inside the character. If this bedrock conflict isn’t clear the script won’t add up to very much. Unfortunately, this is the case in War Horse.

Iron Lady

I saw IRON LADY and Meryl Streep does give a tremendous performance– but the film didn’t work for me because there was no point of view. The film is just a series of vignettes.
As a character she is looking back but there was no larger vision, greater perspective or sense of how that era should ultimately be judged. Lots of swirling riot scenes and flashing headlines but again vignettes. (Also no sense of what it costs the national soul to abandon those weakest and most vulnerable in favor a “self-reliance” not all can achieve– especially if they are very young children or very elderly).
When I was in London during that era she was called “Margret Thatcher the Milk Snatcher” because she cut nutritional programs in school for poor children).
Also the film has very little character development. She wants to get elected, her first campaign is a failure, she does get elected, she rules and then she is deposed. It’s very linear and episodic despite the fractured structure of the film.
We see clearly what she wants (and thinks) but we never see what she needs in the sense of a deeper human longing and we don’t ever see what it cost her to make the choices she does.
A small cost is hinted at in her absent son but she’s very comfortable, with a dutiful daughter (whom she mostly ignores) and she is unrepentant in all things. IMO The Queen was a much better movie with an equally strong female performance by Helen Mirren.
UnknownI saw IRON LADY at a WGA screening and Meryl Streep does give a tremendous performance– but the film ultimately  didn’t work for me because it has no point of view. The narrative is just a series of personal and political vignettes.
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As a character she is looking back but there is no larger vision, greater perspective or sense of how that era should ultimately be judged. There are lots of swirling riot scenes and flashing headlines about the times but again they are just visual vignettes.
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The film provides no larger sense of what it costs the national soul to abandon those weakest and most vulnerable in favor a “self-reliance” not all can achieve– especially if they are very young children or very elderly.  When I was in London during that era she was called “Margret Thatcher the Milk Snatcher” because she cut nutritional programs in school for poor children.
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Streep has very little character development to work with. Maggie wants to get elected, her first campaign is a failure, she does get elected, she rules and then she is deposed. It’s very linear and episodic narrative progression despite the fractured structure of the film.  Streep’s performance is a brilliant impersonation but doesn’t rise beyond that because of the script’s limitations.
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We see clearly what the main character wants (and thinks) but we never see what she needs in the sense of a deeper human longing and we don’t ever see what it cost her to make the choices she does.  A small cost is hinted at in her absent son but she’s very comfortable, has the attention of a dutiful daughter (whom she mostly ignores) and she is unrepentant in all things.
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The Queen is a much better movie with an equally strong female performance by Helen Mirren and a powerful narrative arc.  See my analysis of that film here.

Midnight in Paris

20110601__20110603_D06_AE03SCMIDNIGHT~p1_200Woody Allen’s new movie, Midnight in Paris, is his best since Hannah and Her Sisters.  It’s charming, funny and life affirming in a wonderfully whimsical way.  The film is a mediation on nostalgia (which I believe is best defined as: “Remembering things the way they never were.”)

A.O. Scott writes in The New York Times:

The definitive poem in English on the subject of cultural nostalgia may be a short verse by Robert Browning called “Memorabilia.” It begins with a gasp of astonishment — “Ah, did you once see Shelley plain?” — and ends with a shrug: “Well I forget the rest.” Isn’t that always how it goes? The past seems so much more vivid, more substantial, than the present, and then it evaporates with the cold touch of reality. The good old days are so alluring because we were not around, however much we wish we were.

Midnight in Paris is a rare foray in the Power of Idealism territory for a Woody Allen film.  It’s a meditation on the power of the past, finding the extraordinary in the ordinary and longing vs contentment.

Gil (Owen Wilson) is a very successful Hollywood screenwriter who considers himself a hack.  His fiancee, Inez (Rachel McAdams), likes the Malibu lifestyle that Gil’s prodigious income affords.  The engaged couple is tagging along on her parent’s business trip for a pre-wedding Paris shopping excursion.

Gil longs for more meaningful artistic achievement.  He wants to write a serious novel about a man who owns a memorabilia shop.  His biggest regret in life is moving to Hollywood when he had the opportunity to live in Paris and become a “real” writer.  His fiance thinks he’s crazy.

The worst thing that could happen to a Power of Idealism character is to be or become unexceptional, mediocre or completely ordinary.  A “Hollywood hack” fits this nightmare definition for Gil.

characters are absolutely certain they want something “more” out of life but often don’t exactly know what that is—or how to get it.
These characters are frequently consumed by what they cannot have or a sense that something important is absent or lost in their lives.  This missing something or someone can be the emotionally or physically unavailable love interest, an impossibly high standard of esthetic or personal excellence or some other perfect, missing something.

wilson_0Power of Idealism characters are frequently consumed by what they cannot have or a sense that something important is absent or lost in their lives.  This missing something or someone can be the emotionally or physically unavailable love interest, an impossibly high standard of aesthetic or personal excellence or some other perfect, missing something.  For Gil, it’s the romance and inspiration of Paris in the 1920’s. If only he could have lived then– everything would have been perfect.

Gil has a magical chance to visit the era he longs for via a 1920’s Peugeot that stops for him as he drunkenly lounges on a stone stairway in a forgotten alleyway.  He is whisked off to a party where he meets Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Cole Porter and Ernest Hemingway.  Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Salvador Dali and Gertrude Stein also welcome him, as an aspiring novelist, into their circle.

In his wide-eyed wanderings, Gil meets and falls for the remarkable muse Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who inspired a whole catalogue of famous artists of the time.  Gil is shocked to discover the Adriana has absolutely no appreciation of the “golden age” in which she lives and in which she plays such a vital part.  Instead, she longs for the wonderful “Belle Epoque” which she sees as so much more glamorous, romantic and inspiring than her own era.

Power of Idealism characters must learn to find the magic and passion in the small details of their present day life with family and friends and discover transcendence in the mundane moments of living and loving in the here and now.   They must find the extraordinary in the ordinary.  They must learn to appreciate what they do have instead of longing for what they can never possess.

A.O. Scott puts it another way in discussing Gil meeting “Tom,” the poet who turns out to be TS Elliot:

Unless I’m mistaken, (the poem) “Prufrock” is a statement of the very ennui — the perception of a diminished world unable to satisfy a hungering sensibility — that afflicts Gil. Mr. Allen’s treatment of this condition is gentle and wry. He can hardly be unaware that he himself is, for much of his audience, an object of nostalgic affection, much the way Cole Porter, among others, is for Gil, his alter ego. That a shared love of Porter’s music allows Gil to forge a connection in the present (and conceivably the future) with a young Parisian woman (Léa Seydoux) is a sign that his fetishizing of bygone days has been based on a mistake. Paris is perpetually alive, not because it houses the ghosts of the famous dead but because it is the repository and setting of so much of their work. And the purpose of all that old stuff is not to carry us into the past but rather to animate and enliven the present.

Gil finds contentment with the present and hope for the future in a romance with Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux), the owner of a nostalgia shop.  This witty whimsical film is a near perfect confection that illuminates and inspires.  Midnight in Paris reminds us that the here and now is as “golden” as any other era.