Power and The Game of Thrones

Soap Operas were the first television broadcast formats to use non-linear narratives. These programs have always featured interrupted story lines, shifting character focus and point of view in various episodes (and a large cast with whose characters regularly drop in and out of particular story lines), as well as alternating story arcs which advance separate but related story lines, or different characters that deal with different aspects of the same plot. There is frequent use of flashbacks, dream sequences, and other disjointed uses of time.

Popular and critically acclaimed Prime Time programs that are perceived as innovative and highly original use a combination of many of the same storytelling techniques. Why do shows such as The Game of Thrones feel fresh, inventive, and avant-garde to television audiences while Soap Operas often feel tired, old fashioned, and provincial? The answer can be found in two words– Great Characters.

If you look at the structure of The Game of Thrones it is about 80% eating or drinking and talking, walking and talking, having sex and talking, or riding and talking.  A few spectacular set pieces or violent action sequences do punctuate all of the talking but the show is primarily about relationships and power, relationships and love, or relationships and trust or betrayal.  This kind of relationship drama is the foundation of a soap.

The Game of Throne brings its relationships to life with complex characters that have a specific point of view and whose actions are always consistent with their particular way of looking at the world, their role in the world, and their philosophy of life, love, and power.

Let’s take a look at the main Game of Thrones characters in relationship to how they understand power and its use.

The first major character introduced in the series is Eddard “Ned” Stark. He is the lord of the Wintefell and head of the House Stark. He is a Power of Conscience character.

These characters know instinctively if something is wrong, unfair, or improper. They have a keen sense of justice and feel responsible for doing the greater good. In Ned’s own words: “The law is the law.” “You think my life is such a precious thing to me, that I would trade my honor for a few more years …of what?”  These characters look at power as their sworn duty to do right and take responsibility. Ned is tested by an offer to save his children by confessing to a treason he did not commit.  He believes his higher duty is to his family rather than his word.  He is beheaded any way and his children hunted down or dangerously trapped.

Catelyn Tully is the wife of Ned Stark and Lady of Winterfell. She is fiercely protective of her family. Catelyn always follows her heart rather than her head where family matters are concerned. She is  jealous of Ned’s bastard son, Jon Snow. She resents that her husband brought the boy into HER family.

Later in the story, Catelyn is consumed with avenging the deaths in the House of Stark. She is a formidable adversary and, like most Power of Love characters, wields an iron fist in a velvet glove. She finds her power in protecting and pushing her family forward.

Robb Stark is the eldest child of Lady Catelyn and Lord Eddard Stark. He is declared King in the North by his bannermen and family allies after his father’s execution.  He is leading forces in a rebellion to break the North from the control of the Iron Throne.

Robb is a Power of Idealism character.  He is a warrior/savant called “The Young Wolf” and instinctively knows how to strategize and win battles.  Like Jaime Lannister, another Power of Idealism character, Robb is an extraordinary warrior and believes the rules don’t apply to him.  And like Jaime, Robb is in love with someone forbidden to him.  He is a doomed romantic who secretly weds a woman who will cost him his life and his war. His power is his ability to inspire others and in his extraordinary fighting abilities.

Jon Snow is Ned Stark’s second son.  He was born of an undisclosed romantic liaison.  He, like his father, is a Power of Conscience character.  Jon feels unworthy as Ned’s bastard son and joins the Rangers to find a good and moral purpose for his life.  But, like all Power of Conscience characters, the issue soon becomes what is the higher duty or most important moral purpose?  Does he try to help and save his brother, Robb, and the Stark family?  Or does he remain true to the vows he took as a Ranger to protect only the Wall and hence the entire realm.  Jon finds power in being a good and righteous man, he often doesn’t know what such a man looks like in the dark and complicated world he faces.

Sansa Stark is the elder daughter of Catelyn and Eddard Stark. She is raised as a true high-born lady with all the traditional feminine charms and graces. Sansa is also a Power of Love character. She is a young romantic and lives for day she will marry her handsome prince and have his children.

When her Prince Joffery turns out to be a cruel little sadist she, like most Power of Love characters, believes if she loves him long enough and well enough he will have to love her back. These characters often see their own value reflected in the eyes of another.  Sansa sees her power as a dance of romance and courtly love.  But she too, over the course of the series, reveals the strength of steel inside her velvet glove.

Arya Stark is the third child and second Stark daughter. She is a rebellious, high-spirited girl who doesn’t fit in with the other young ladies of the court. She wants to excel as a swordsman and fighter.

Arya is a Power of Idealism Character. These characters want to find their special place in the word, be extraordinary, and be called to some great destiny (often as a warrior). They reject the demands of  traditional authority to maintain and protect their own individuality and personal freedom. Arya seeks the power of having the ability to be fully and truly herself.

Brandon is the fourth child and third  Stark son. He is a Power of Imagination character.

These characters can see, hear, or “feel” things others cannot. Bran has a mystical connection with his direwolf, has prophetic dreams, and has a growing access to the “old magic” as the story goes on.

He is seemingly small, insignificant, and a cripple due to a fall. But he has great inner powers yet to be revealed.  Brandon’s only access to power as a connection to the mystical, magical, and the divine.  “You can’t kill it you know, the raven is you.”

Robert Baratheon is the (late) King of Westeros. He took the Iron Throne in a war known as Robert’s Rebellion. He is a Power of Will character.

Tywin Lannister, another Power of Will character, lusts for domination and control, but King Robert lusts for wine, women, hunting, and eating.

He is a Power of Will character in the tradition of Falstaff. Robert is volatile, dangerous and is entirely ruled by his appetites.  Power to Robert is living large and lustily and answering to no one.

Cersei Lannister is the wife and later widow of King Robert. Cersei is the only daughter of Lord Tywin Lannister.  The House of Lannister is one of the wealthiest and most influential families in Westeros.

Cersei is another Power of Love character.  She exercises power through her son, Joffery.  Although she know how dark and cruel his heart is she still loves him as fiercely as a mother lion.

“Tears aren’t a woman’s only weapon.”  “Everyone who isn’t us is an enemy.”  She finds her power behind her son’s throne.

Ser Jaime Lannister is a knight of the Kingsguard, a position he has held for twenty years since he was made the youngest Kingsguard ever. He is the eldest son of Tywin Lannister and is his sister’s incestuous lover.

He a Power of Idealism character and is acknowledged as one of the best warriors in the land.  Jamie is unique and extraordinary. He makes his own rules and follows his own peculiar code of honor.  His power is in his extraordinary and unique abilities.  “There are no men like me. Only me.”

Tywin Lannister is Lord of Casterly Rock, Shield of Lannisport, and Warden of the West. He is one of the most powerful lords in Westeros and father of Jaime, Cersei, and Tyrion Lannister.

He is a Power of Will character. These characters take what they want, fight for every inch of turf, refuse to show any weakness themselves, pounce decisively on the weakness of others, and swiftly avenge any wrong (or perceived wrong). “Do you think I’d be where I am if I had lost a battle?” These characters show no mercy and expect none.  His power is in his strength and ruthlessness.

Tyrion Lannister, is the third and youngest child of powerful Lord Tywin. Tyrion is a dwarf, and is sometimes mockingly called The Imp or The Halfman. He is a Power of Truth character.

Unlike Varys who is a sly secret-keeper, Tyrion is a bold skeptic and cynical truth-teller. He often says what others are too afraid, too embarrassed, or too timid to say.

The major theme in his story going forward is betrayal or seeming betrayal by nearly everyone. Power is an illusive thing for Tyrion, it resides in loyalty and trust.  Both are so rare in Westeros as to be almost nonexistent.  He survives by his keen wit, cynical nature, and his powers of perception.

Varys is a eunuch, a secret keeper, and the Master of Whisperers (the head of the royal Spy Network). He is an advisor on the king’s small council.

Varys is a Power of Truth character. These characters believe the world is filled with hidden dangers, illusive enemies and concealed pitfalls. His philosophy might be stated: “Things are never what they seem.” “Trust no one.” “Watch out for secret agendas and hidden pitfalls.”  He believes power is “a trick, a shadow on the wall”.  Power is perception.  “It resides where people believe it resides”.

I liked what the AV Club has said about the series– “Each storyline is separated into roughly equal-sized chunks, then split between episodes. Every week, viewers drop in on one of those storylines for a few minutes, hopefully departing enticed to come back the next week by a cliffhanger (or two). Some episodes focus more heavily on certain characters, but each hour goes out of its way to drop in on as many characters as possible, just to keep the audience aware of what’s going on. As in soaps, this creates stories that don’t so much build as exist in an eternal present. The show has climaxes and traditional stories, but it seems to constantly be moving forward. There’s always something else coming, and the series has to maintain the illusion that whatever finality there is offers more of a comma than a period.”

I would add that the gaining or losing of power and how power is best used are the underlying theme that tie all the far-flung action of the show together.  This theme provides a sense of continuity to what’s going on in every part of the world and across all the battle fronts (foreign and domestic) on which the war is being fought.  Power is what binds the characters to the story and also binds the disparate action of the episodes together.

Vintage Cop Shows – Why Is The Cop On The Job?

Andy-Sipowicz-etbscreenwriting

I recently had a question from a reader about how different Character Types do the same job OR how the same Character Types might do a job differently.  This previous post answers both questions.  I love questions from readers.  Be sure to submit yours.

Three cop shows changed forever how police work is depicted on television. Each show was original and iconic in its own time. Each remains an example of emotional storytelling at peak intensity and engagement. Let’s look at Hill Street Blues, Homicide: Life on the Street and NYPD Blue and the lessons that can be drawn going forward.

Hill Street Blues redefined the cop/crime genre through intertwined partnerships that combined police officers’ stressful work lives with the conflicts in their private lives. Very few investigations or interrogations were ever featured on the show. Instead, each episode charted a “day in the life” of the precinct from the early-morning roll call to a late-night rehash of the day’s events. This recap was usually in the bedroom with lovers Captain Furillo and Public Defender Joyce Davenport. Hill Street Blues focused almost exclusively on the interpersonal relationships between the core cast members. The show also introduced a more “documentary” look and feel to the genre. Real-life personal issues and situations were explored in a raw and more explicit manner than previously depicted on earlier shows such as Columbo or Kojak. Real-life street slang was used throughout the program.

Homicide: Life on the Street exploded television racial stereotypes with multi-dimensional complex depictions of African Americans. The show was set in Baltimore, a predominately black American city. The storylines managed to cross racial barriers that were previously taboo on television. Homicide also broke many of television’s editing and narrative continuity rules. Jump cuts were numerous and unpredictable shifts in the narrative marked it as one of the most unconventional programs at that point in the genre. With a sharp unflinching honesty about race, prejudice and violence, the detective’s job is depicted as repetitive and emotionally draining. The show examined the enormous toll that policing took on individuals and on partnerships.

NYPD Blue was set against the backdrop of urban decay in New York City. Career cops were depicted as complicated, complex and often deeply flawed human beings. Although the show featured risky adult material, most of the stories were about families and the terrible emotional aftermath of violence. Less attention was paid to the crimes than how the crimes affected the relationships in the core cast. NYPD Blue was really about one man’s journey toward redemption. Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) began the show as a drunken abusive racist cop who is about to be thrown off the force (for good reason). Seventeen years later, he’s earned the top position in the precinct and, although still Andy, is fit to lead.

Each of these classic cop shows focused on the “Why” of the human cop story rather than the “How” of the crime story. That’s what made them successful. And that’s what separates these shows from the current generation of procedural cop shows like Law & Order (and all its varieties). But even in the Dick Wolf Law & Order universe, “Why” each person does the job is based on the individual’s very clear Character Type. For example: Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston), over many years on the show, still wrestles with the same questions of ethical principle vs. political expediency and law vs. justice. His “Why” is clearly driven by the Power of Conscience.

In a one-hour drama it is only possible to do one thing well– procedure or personal relationships. There isn’t time to do both well. There currently is lots of procedure on television. Perhaps it’s time for the pendulum to swing back to emotional personal relationships in cop shows.

Clear true emotions travel. They connect with the audience and move them week after week to watch a show. The definition of “to be entertained” is to feel something. In the classic cop shows discussed above, the mechanics of “How” a crime is solved is so much less important than “Why” the cops are doing what they are doing and “Why” they are affected by the job. If there is no “Why” it’s just cops going through the motions, which can make a story feel by-the-numbers and hollow.

The “Why” provides the passion and inter-personal conflict between the individuals in the story (and all the internal conflict within the character). Too often writers simply project their general idea of being a cop and the mechanics of “How” to put the cops through their paces— Instead of being specific about “Why” one particular individual is a cop.

There are four basic categories of “Why” anyone becomes a cop (or anything else for that matter):

1. It’s a job. Being a cop is solid union employment and a way to make a living or support a family. The cop does what is expected and punches out. The cop puts in the time and is concerned and responsible on the job. But he or she doesn’t take the job home and retires as soon as is feasible.

2. It’s a career. Being a cop is a good opportunity for advancement. The cop is working to achieve something else. The job is a means to an end (rising through the ranks, running for political office, becoming a consultant etc.) It is a stepping- stone to something else and worth the hard work and extra effort to achieve a larger goal.

3. It’s a vocation. Being a cop is a life mission or a higher calling. The cop is there to make a difference, have an important impact or change people’s lives. The work is a consuming passion for the cop. There is no dividing line between work and personal life. Work is the cop’s life.

4. It’s a mistake. Being a cop is not a good fit. The individual is a cop for the wrong reasons or the wrong motivations. Or the reality of the job doesn’t conform to the idea of the job or the fantasy of being a cop. In any case, the individual puts in the time and effort, got the job and now is trapped.

Any kind of employment, but particularly policing, has a variety of people who look at the “Why” of doing the job very differently. All individuals naturally assume their “Why” is the most valid reason or, if everyone else was honest, is the real motivation “Why” anyone works at the Station House or Precinct. This is a great opportunity for personal conflict in a story. Too often in cop shows (or shows featuring any profession) everyone is doing the job for the same reason. That isn’t the case in life and it shouldn’t be the case in your drama.

Layered onto “Why” someone is employed as a police officer (it’s a job, a career, a vocation or a mistake) is the “Why” of the individual’s Character Type. Looking down on nine different police officers toiling away long into the night it might be easy or convenient to believe they are all working hard for the same internal motivation or with the same value system and world view in mind. Every one of the Nine Character Types sees the world very differently, believes very different things about how the world works, and sees the primary role of a cop from a unique perspective.

1. Power of Conscience cops believe policing is a duty and a responsibility to make the world a better place. Doing the right thing is crucial to these kinds of cops. Their struggle is what is the higher duty or the most right—law or justice. (These two principles are not the same thing). Hill Street Blues‘ Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel) is this kind of character. Howard Hunter (James B. Sikking) is the comic version on the same show. Homicide’s Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) is also a Power of Conscience character. Rylan Givens (Timothy Oliphant) is a more recent example.

2. Power of Will cops believe policing is a matter of strength and the ability to dominate the situation. The use of power is crucial to these kinds of cops. Their struggle is what actually constitutes strength or power— excess or restraint. (Does compassion and tolerance make you stronger or weaker?) NYPD Blue’s Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) is this kind of character. A more recent example is Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) on The Shield.

3. Power of Ambition cops believe policing is a matter of winning or losing. Appealing to other’s self-interest is the way to get things done. Their struggle is with short cuts vs. the long hard patient slog—results or process. (If no one else plays by the rules why should they?) Hill Street Blues‘ John “JD” LaRue (Kiel Martin) is a Power of Ambition character. A more recent example is Lieutenant Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) on The Wire.

4. Power of Love cops believe policing is caring for others and helping them succeed. Compassion and understanding is crucial to how they get the job done. Their struggle is when to employ “tough love” or just give up on someone. (When does empathy or understanding simply enable bad or destructive behavior?) NYPD Blue’s Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits) is this kind of character. Another example is Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad) on Hill Street Blues.

5. Power of Idealism cops believe policing is a matter of individual style and personal excellence. Use of unique talents and refusing to buckle under to stupid bureaucrats is crucial to their method of policing. Their struggle is how to maintain their individuality and still be part of a larger organization. (When does being a maverick or a rebel cause more harm than good?) Homicide’s Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) illustrates the Power of Idealism character as a cop.  A more example is Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) on The Wire.

6. Power of Reason cops believe policing is a matter of keeping personal self-control and maintaining the social order. Objectivity, expertise and a depth of knowledge are crucial to getting the job done. Their struggle is to connect with their own emotions. (When is objectivity actually alienation?) Dexter’s title character (Michael C. Hall) is one of the best recent examples of this kind of character on the police force. Monk’s title character (Tony Shalhoub) is the comedic example.

7. Power of Truth cops believe policing is a matter of uncovering secret agendas and avoiding hidden pitfalls. Establishing trust, knowing who your friends are and being attuned to conspiracies are crucial to getting the job done. Their struggle is to accept the ambiguity of the job and the possibility of never finding real certainty. (Is the “truth” a moving target or something fixed and certain?) Homicide’s conspiracy obsessed Steve Crosetti (Jon Polito) is this kind of character. Hill Street Blues’ loyal to the core Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) is another example.  Kurt Wallander (Kenneth Branagh) on the UK version of Wallendar is a more recent example.

8. Power of Imagination cops believe policing is a matter of listening to your instincts, following hunches and special intuitive clues. Often access to what others cannot see or hear or a quirky special kind of insight is crucial to doing their job. Their struggle is how to interpret their unusual intuition or how best to communicate it to others. (Do they take me seriously or do they think I’m crazy?) This kind of cop is rare on television. Hill Street Blues’ Michael (Mick) Belker (Bruce Weitz) is an uncouth ruffian version of the Power of Imagination character.  A more recent example is police consultant Allison DuBois (Patricia Arquette) in Medium.

9. Power of Excitement cops believe policing is an adventure and a thrill ride. Their charm, good-humor and ability to get themselves in and out of traps is crucial to how they do their job. Their struggle is in following orthodox rules when it is so much more interesting to play fast and loose, improvise and shoot from the hip. (Are we having fun yet?) Beverly Hills Cop’s Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) is the quintessential example of this character.

The “Why” of policing combined with Character Type creates a variety of complex and interesting individuals. It would be possible, for example, to create four very different Power of Conscience characters depending on whether they view policing as a job, as a career, as a vocation or as a mistake. Their values and their world views would not change but their attitudes would clash. For example: How these characters define their “higher duty” or what is the “most right” is hugely influenced by the reason they are on the job. Those different perspectives provide enormous potential conflict. Here is the breakdown:

1. A Power of Conscience cop who sees policing as a job would probably believe the higher duty is owed to family. This cop would follow the rules, be conscientious and not take the job home.

2. A Power of Conscience cop who sees policing as a career would probably believe the higher duty is owed to the organization or society. The higher the cop rises, the more effective the position becomes to do good and improve the larger situation. This cop would be relentless in seeking opportunities to advance a larger moral agenda.

3. A Power of Conscience cop who sees policing as a vocation probably believes the higher duty is owed to the victims of crime. This cop’s passion would be justice for the victims and punishment for the criminals. His or her personal life would be consumed by this life mission.

4. A Power of Conscience cop who see policing as a mistake would probably believe the higher duty is owed to one’s self. Policing can be a murky business where there often is no right answer and true justice is hard to find. This lack of clear-cut black and white or right and wrong would probably be an unbearable burden on this individual– giving rise to external moral outrage and internal guilt or self-loathing. How can I be good or worthy in a cesspool?

Creating an ensemble which clearly addresses “Why” the cop is on the job combined with Character Type provides an endless source of internal and external conflict. Making use of the full variety of human experience in specific combination creates memorable partnerships, unforgettable enemies and extraordinary individual characters.

#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.

 

Brave from Pixar – How Good is Good Enough?

Pixar_Brave_1I saw Brave this weekend along with a surging box office crowd.  It’s Pixar after all and their first film with a female protagonist in the studio’s 17 year history.

Settling down in the theater seat I saw what seemed like a dozen trailers for upcoming animated films. There is a lot of competition out there!

All of the visuals for the coming attractions looked great, and so does Brave.  Every review of Brave (even the bad ones) wax poetic about  the lush scenery, the gorgeous colors, the spectacular hair, the realistic fur, and the impressive claws!

Folks, I’m here to tell you– The technology war is OVER. How much more realistic can you make rippling water, wind-whipped tresses, galloping horses, and  sleek bear pelts?  Great visuals are now the norm. Every animated studio film has them and the incremental improvements, unless they are game-changing, don’t add up to very much in my book. Are technological advances in fur, hair, and water really the reason why we go to movies? Is it to watch a fabulous moving painting?

We go to movies for the same reason people sat around the castle hearth in 10th century Scotland– for a great story filled with memorable characters! Brave, set in that very time and place, repeats over and over “Legends are lessons.” That is true of the best stories. They tell us what it is to be human in all our fragility and strength, blindness and insight, and selfishness and transcendence.

What story exactly is Brave telling? What is the lesson in this legend? The film’s very muddled narrative adds up to a lack of complexity and not enough heart. If the film’s visuals were on a par with the story we’d be watching stick figures.

I knew Brave was in trouble from the first few words spoken in voice over as the film began. Merida (Kelly Macdonald) uses the words “fate” and “destiny” interchangeably.  This muddle-headedness is at the heart of the film’s problem.

What’s the difference between fate and destiny? Philosophers through the ages have distinguished the two based on choice. Fate is something that happens TO you. Destiny is something that happens BECAUSE of you.

Fate is at the root of such words as “fatal” and “fatalistic.” It implies LACK of choice. Philosopher Rollo May says fate is what we are born into, something that cannot be changed and that we have no control over, such as race.

May says destiny is what we create based on what we were given. Destiny is all about CHOICE. It’s what we choose to do with what we have.

imagesMerida is born a princess. She can’t change that. Her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), is grooming Merida for a role as future queen. After a long series of wars King Fergus (Billy Connolly) has united the four clans. Merida’s duty is to help keep the clans unified though a judicious marriage.

Merida is a wild rebellious child with special talent as a rider and archer. The demonstrations of her skills are absolutely breath-taking.  She is unique and extraordinary and initially looks very much like a Power of Idealism character.

These kinds of characters are driven by their passion. They abhor what they consider to be a mundane, boring, or mediocre life. They want to seize some grand destiny that is uniquely theirs.

The film starts out like a Power of Idealism Coming of Age story. The deeper human questions at the heart of these stories are: How can I be true to myself and find my rightful place in the world? What is my own special destiny?

Well drawn female protagonists in this vein are:

Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes) in Whale Rider. This film, for those who haven’t seen it is described on IMDB as “A contemporary story of (family) love, rejection and triumph as a young Maori girl fights to fulfill a destiny her grandfather refuses to recognize.”

Jess Kaur Bhamra (Parminder Nagra) in Bend it Like Beckham is another example. IMDB states the film’s log line as “The (talented) daughter of an orthodox Sikh rebels against her parents’ traditionalism by running off to Germany to play with a girl’s football team (soccer in America).”

Unlike Paikea or Jess, Merida doesn’t fight for what she believes is HER destiny. Merida, instead, decides to change her mother!  Perhaps this is because Merida has no clue about what she is really called to do.

tdy-120613-brave.380Now the story gets even muddier. With the help of an old witch’s spell Merida does indeed change her mother — into a bear.

Instead of figuring out who she is and what she uniquely is called to do, Merida must again deal with who her mother is. In the struggle over the middle part of Brave, Queen Elinor becomes the protagonist.

The definition of a protagonist, in my book, is the person who makes the biggest emotional sacrifice in the story. It is the person who undergoes the most profound transformation. This is clearly Elinor on every front.

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 duty. Over the course of the story she recognizes her daughter’s uniqueness and fully appreciates Merida for who she is.

The first important glimpse of Elinor’s change of heart is the brawl in the great hall after Merida has disappeared.  When Merida strides back into the hall it is Elinor who puts words in Merida’s mouth. Elinor speaks through her surrogate about going against tradition and marrying for love. It is Elinor who makes an eloquent plea for choice and following one’s heart. Merida is just her passive interpreter. At the end of the film Elinor is willing to sacrifice her own life in a battle with the ancient cursed bear, who one would assume, was the monster who took off her husband’s leg. Or not? Who knows?

Even more confusingly this monster turns out to be the legendary brother, it would seem, who destroyed the ancient kingdom so long ago because of his pride and selfishness.  How did he turn into a bear? Was it mother love or something else that breaks his curse?

When a legend and curse is set up so carefully it should have a pay-off having to do with Merida or her destiny– if the film is really about Merida.

And what does Merida do that is so brave?  She scurries around looking for the witch’s house after her mother turns into a bear.  She stitches up (with big clumsy childish stitches) the tapestry she slashed separating her from her mother.  She does a lot of running away and running around. She is ineffective in battling the monstrous cursed bear. And she collapses in tears remembering her mother’s loving kindness as the second sunrise threatens to make her mother’s bear curse permanent. In other words, she acts like a child– or worse a girl.

At the end of the film, Elinor has changed but not Merida.  Merida is the same galloping wild child as she was in the beginning.  This refusal to accept restrictions, grow up, or take responsibility is Power of Excitement territory. It is a sinking back into childhood rather than striding toward an adulthood based both on duty and and an individualistic sense of self. If you are a young woman, what is the lesson here?

Brave offers no alternative vision of how Merida might help unify the clan in some way that is uniquely hers. It provides a very unsatisfying resolution. How has Merida changed or grown? What happens when King Fergus and Queen Elinor are too old to rule? What is Merida’s role going forward?

MANOHLA DARGIS NY TIMES–  discouragingly uninspired script by Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman and Irene Mecchi. (Ms. Chapman, the first woman hired to direct a Pixar feature, either left or was removed from “Brave” and now shares directing credit with Mr. Andrews.)
The association of Merida with the natural world accounts for some of the movie’s most beautifully animated sequences, and in other, smarter or maybe just braver, hands it might have also inspired new thinking about women, men, nature and culture. Here, however, the nature-culture divide is drawn along traditional gender

There is so much missed opportunity in Brave.  Manohla Dargis writing in The New York Times laments:  “The association of Merida with the natural world accounts for some of the movie’s most beautifully animated sequences, and in other, smarter or maybe just braver, hands it might have also inspired new thinking about women, men, nature and culture.”

BraveThe story thuds along on the surface. None of the characters in Brave is particularly complex or have much emotional depth. Although Elinor and King Fergus are a love match now, theirs was an arranged marriage. Did either ever love another? How does either feel about the fact neither might have chosen the other if it was up to choice? How did they eventually find love together? That is rich emotional territory that never factors into the story– or in Elinor’s advice or lessons to Merida. It seems incredible that a loving mother wouldn’t speak of her own experience on the eve of arranged betrothal, especially if it was a struggle that ultimately lead to happiness.

King Fergus himself, is a simple lovable loud-mouth lout. He is the very broadest brush-stroke Power of Will character. He’s a big, larger than life presence. He is a man of lusty appetite– for food, wine, and brawling.

Merida’s three suitors are a joke. None of them is remotely appealing.  This is a huge mistake and gives Merida no pause for thought nor any temptation to chose a different path.  It removes essential inner conflict for her. All the conflict in the story is the simplest external conflict. No one has self-doubts. No one struggles within themselves.

How did the film go so wrong, except for the visuals?  Joe Morgenstern writing in The Wall Street Journal reports: “Brave was a notoriously troubled production, with a change of directors that clearly led to a change of narrative direction. (The complexity of the final credits reflects the tortuous history: directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman and co-directed by Steve Purcell, from a script written by Messrs. Andrews and Purcell, Ms. Chapman and Irene Mecchi.)

Colin Covert writing for The Minneapolis Star Tribune pretty much sums it up: “The standout characters, exciting set pieces and memorable songs that we’ve come to expect are absent. The truest advertising tagline would be, “From the studio that brought you ‘Cars 2.’

Battleship

I arrived at the WGA screening expecting to see an arty, cerebral, independent film, Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, and realized something was odd when Hasbro got a big credit in the first few moments of the opening.  I had the times wrong and Battleship was playing on the screen.

My expectations were low, my aisle seat afforded me a quick painless getaway, and yet I stayed.  I actually enjoyed the movie.

imagesPower of Idealism bad boy Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch, Friday Night Lights) is a colossal screw-up. It’s love at first sight when he spots Sam (Brooklyn Decker) at a bar.  She won’t give him the time of day.  He makes a big over-the-top romantic gesture of getting her an after hours chicken burrito in ten minutes just to talk to her. This is involves a breaking into a convenience story through the roof, falling a full story several times but beating the time limit imposed by her impossible request.

Power of Idealism characters are misfits, mavericks and rebels. They believe that life and love should involve a grand passion, big romantic gestures, and an individual heroic destiny (even if it others see their actions as doomed, crazy, or just being a jack-ass).

images-1Alex’s Power of Conscience brother, Stone (Alexander Skarsgård), demands Alex get some discipline and learn responsibility by joining the Navy.  The two brothers serve together on a destroyer. The story opens during NATO exercises and international competitive sports.

Power of Conscience characters know instinctively if something is wrong, unjust, unfair, improper, corrupt or out of line. Their judgment and response is swift and immutable. These characters believe they are their brother’s keeper. They feel responsible for the greater good and for doing good.

As he rises through the Navy, Alex continues to be a grandstander and a rebel lone wolf hero. He tries to kick a goal by himself after he is injured by a competing Japanese officer.  Alex misses and the Navy loses the game to Japan.  Alex and the offending Japanese officer develop an intense animosity off the field that explodes into a brutal fist fight.

Meanwhile, the egg heads at NASA try to contact other life forms in deep space after they discover an earth-like planet light years away.  Naturally, a hostile alien invasion ensues. The alien’s superior technology and advanced weapons systems terribly out-match what earth has to offer.

81836-29574Power of Love Seaman Jimmy ‘Ordy’ Ord (Friday Night Lights Alumn Jesse Plemons) is Alex’s reliable side kick.  Jimmy comes up with a crucial bit of information about a possible alien personal weakness.

Power of Love characters are the helpful best friend, the loyal sidekick, or adoring love interest who devotes him or her self to helping the hero succeed. They will always tell the hero the hard truth when that’s what he or she needs to hear.

Brooklyn_Decker_Battleship_Profile.jpg_0Alex’s now girlfriend, Power of Love Samantha, turns out to be the daughter of Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson). She sticks by Alex through thick and thin.  Sam is a physical therapist on Oahu, working with wounded post-amputation Navy veterans who are relearning life skills and coping with their loss.  One of  her patients is Power of Will Lt. Colonel Mick Canales (real-life veteran and double amputee Gregory D. Gadson).

Power of Will characters fear showing any sign of weakness or vulnerability. Mick Canales feels he is now half a man because he is unfit to be a soldier.  Mick turns weakness into strength and is a key player in battling the aliens on the ground near their communications center.

battleship_rihanna-500Rihanna is the cool sarcastic Power of Reason gunner and expert shot in the crew.  Power of Reason character always try to maintain a sense of cool detachment and personal objectivity.  They excel in their area of expertise.

I found the film goofily charming and agree with the review in Time Magazine:

The creative team behind this ocean-bound thriller decided to fill the narrative black hole with a few ingredients all but absent from today’s summer tent poles — namely mystery, nostalgia and a healthy dose of humility. Just as blockbusters have made the hard turn towards fantasy heroes who solemnly go about their business in high-def-but-low-impact 3D cage matches, Battleship is an unapologetically goofy, surprisingly enigmatic, refreshingly self-deprecating deviation from the norm. I hesitate to confess that I had more fun here than I did at The Avengers, because low expectations surely had a lot to do with it, but it’s the truth.

In order to best the aliens Alex must learn team work and, at times, defer to the Japanese officer who was once his adversary.  The two men develop mutual respect and Alex learns to pick his shots. Cleverness, timing, making the most of what you have, good instincts and most of all teamwork between young and old and Japan and America is what ultimately saves the day.

Unlike most action heroes, who simply possess expert skills, Alex is learning as he goes, and we learn through his eyes. As his crew develops a new attack plan for the final climactic brawl, there’s something slightly more fulfilling about a strategy that’s evolved throughout the film.
There’s something decidedly retro about the grid sequence, where winning the war at sea has less to do with technology than with instincts, trigger fingers and the equipment at hand. In fact, there’s something delightfully old-school about all the action in Battleship. As classic rock blasts in the background, the movie increasingly shifts its attention away from the spinning, glowing alien ships to the inner workings of mankind’s floating fortresses, paying tribute to veterans and the ingenuity of those in the armed forces. Sure, it’s slightly jingoistic, but when the aliens are calling for backup, we want to cheer for our side.

Unlike most action heroes, who simply possess expert skills, Alex is learning as he goes, and we learn through his eyes. As his crew develops a new attack plan for the final climactic brawl, there’s something slightly more fulfilling about a strategy that’s evolved throughout the film…

…There’s something decidedly retro about the grid sequence, where winning the war at sea has less to do with technology than with instincts, trigger fingers and the equipment at hand. In fact, there’s something delightfully old-school about all the action in Battleship. As classic rock blasts in the background, the movie increasingly shifts its attention away from the spinning, glowing alien ships to the inner workings of mankind’s floating fortresses, paying tribute to veterans and the ingenuity of those in the armed forces. Sure, it’s slightly jingoistic, but when the aliens are calling for backup, we want to cheer for our side.

If you want to read the full Time Magazine review go to http://entertainment.time.com/2012/05/17/battleship-more-f

#TypesTuesday – The Avengers

The Avengers is a continuing box office smash hit.  The clarity of the characters, their witty on-point interactions, and their specific personal conflicts with each other contribute just as much to the movie’s success as the smash-em-up-whiz-bang action.

The character moments were my favorite parts of the movie because, I confess, the 3-D gave me a splitting headache and the action scenes go on a tad long for my personal taste.

The movie begins with the premise that humanity will be annihilated if Loki, the bitter banished demigod, opens a hole in space to let in an invading mechanized army. Loki is adopted, hates his brother, Thor, and wants to destroy the earth Thor loves and protects.

This crisis brings together the reluctant Avengers teammates.  Each portrays his or her Character Type with nearly pitch perfect attitude and dialogue.

The-Avengers-2012-upcoming-movies-29945637-1280-1024Loki is a Power of Idealism demi-god villain:  Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and these Character Types believe they are meant for some kind of heroic destiny.

He says: I am Loki, of Asgard. And I am burdened with glorious purpose.

These characters are “divas” and want to be seen as special, unique, and extraordinary– something out of reach for Loki, who is always in the shadow of his more perfect “brother” Thor.  It was Thor who got all the glory and Loki is furious about that. A bit of dialogue says it all–

Tony Stark: Loki wants everyone to see what he’s doing.
Steve Rogers: Yeah, I caught his act at Stuttengard.
Tony Stark: That was a preview, this will be opening night. Loki’s a full-fledged diva, everything’s got to be about him. He wants a parade, flowers, anything that’ll bring in an audience. He needs someplace where everyone can see it’s him and he’s doing it, somewhere where his name is up in lights!
[pause]
Tony Stark: Sonofabitch!
[heads to Stark Tower]

Tony Stark: Loki wants everyone to see what he’s doing.

Steve Rogers: Yeah, I caught his act at Stuttengard.

Tony Stark: That was a preview, this will be opening night. Loki’s a full-fledged diva, everything’s got to be about him. He wants a parade, flowers, anything that’ll bring in an audience. He needs someplace where everyone can see it’s him and he’s doing it, somewhere where his name is up in lights!

chris-hemsworth-thor-movie-costume-mjolnir-hammer-488x341Thor is a  Power of Love demigod:  Thor (Chris Hemsworth) uses his strength and power to care for and protect the earth.  Despite everything, he still is attached to his adoptive brother, Loki, as evidenced in the following exchange:

Bruce Banner: I don’t think we should be focusing on Loki. That guy’s brain is a bag full of cats. You can smell crazy on him.

Thor: Have a care how you speak. Loki is beyond reason, but he is of Asgard. And he is my brother.

Natasha Romanoff: He killed eighty people in two days.

Thor: He’s adopted.

Thor is the son of Gaea, the nurturing mother earth herself. In his comic book backstory Thor is a caring doctor, Donald Black, who is willing to defy the might of Asgard for the woman he loves.  Power of Love characters are incredibly strong characters and are ferociously unstoppable when something they love and care for is in threatened.

iron_man_the_avengers_2012_movie-t2Iron Man is a Power of Excitement man-made superhero in his mechanized suit:  In his own words he is Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist. In addition, he’s a jokester and an agent of chaos, who loves to stir things up. He’d especially like to see the Hulk get unleashed.

He says: “Dr. Banner, your work is unparalleled. And I’m a huge fan of the way you lose control and turn into an enormous green rage monster.”

Stark speaks frequently in the movie about escape or wanting to escape. Steve Rogers, Captain America, chides him for that saying Stark doesn’t have it in him to make the “sacrifice play” that puts others first. Tony Stark’s rakish push-the-envelop devil-may-care attitude continually presses everyone’s buttons in the story, but his charm, ready wit, and natural talent as an improvisor helps save the day.

Chris-Evans-in-The-Avengers-2012-Movie-ImageCaptain American is a Power of Conscience government laboratory experiment turned superhero: Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a super-soldier who believes in following rules, following orders, and the importance of the chain of command.  He can seem a little stiff and humorless at times but he is 100%  reliable, trustworthy, and always puts the good of the team first. The difference between Rogers and Stark is summed up in this exchange:

Steve Rogers: We have orders, we should follow them.

Tony Stark: Following’s not really my style.

Steve Rogers: And you’re all about style, aren’t you?

Tony Stark: Of the people in this room, which one is A – wearing a spangly outfit and B – not of much use?

Stark surprises Rogers at the climax. And Rogers learns to improvise more, following Stark’s example.

imagesThe Hulk is a Power of Will gamma ray experiment gone-wrong superhero:  Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), in his Hulk state, is all angry impulse. He is primitive. He’s strong. He is a mass of instinctual drives and impulses that only finds satisfaction in “Hulk smash!”  In his normal human state Banner controls his anger enough to be a protector (as a doctor in remote India) rather than a destroyer. But his raw uncontrollable instinctual side is never far away.

Steve Rogers: Doc… I think now is the perfect time for you to get angry.

Bruce Banner: That’s my secret Cap, I’m always angry.

The-Avengers-Black-Widow-Headshot-360x273The Black Widow is a Power of Truth super-spy: Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) doesn’t have super powers per se but she is as skilled a warrior as any of her other Avengers teammates. She lives in a spy vs. spy world that is filled with hidden dangers, secretive enemies, and concealed pitfalls. With the Black Widow– “Things are never what they seem.” “Trust no one.” “Question everything.” “Watch out for secret agendas and hidden pitfalls.” Just when an adversary thinks she is most vulnerable she is actually conducting a brilliant and treacherous interrogation.

hawkeye-the-avengers-01-610x458Hawkeye is a Power of Reason ultra-expert archer:  Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) is a loner and a bit alienated, the perfect combination for his backstory and continuing role as sniper. He is a cold and calculating and spends the first half of the movie under the mind control of Loki.

There isn’t time for very much character development in The Avengers, but what there is is spot on.  Each hero is absolutely true to his or her Character Types in both word and deed. When every bit of dialogue and action has to count as character development, the Character Types will help you be as economical and on target as the characters here.

The Quiet American – Day Twenty Eight – #40movies40days

The-Quiet-American-thumb-560xauto-26217The Quiet American is a wonderful 2002 film directed by Phillip Noyce and starring Michael Caine (Power of Idealism) as a jaded newspaper reporter who moves from being an observer, passionately in love with a young Vietnamese girl, to a direct participant in the tangled politics of her country.

“I can’t say what made me fall in love with Vietnam – that a woman’s voice can drug you; that everything is so intense. The colors, the taste, even the rain. Nothing like the filthy rain in London. They say whatever you’re looking for, you will find here. They say you come to Vietnam and you understand a lot in a few minutes, but the rest has got to be lived. The smell: that’s the first thing that hits you, promising everything in exchange for your soul. And the heat. Your shirt is straightaway a rag. You can hardly remember your name, or what you came to escape from. But at night, there’s a breeze. The river is beautiful. You could be forgiven for thinking there was no war; that the gunshots were fireworks; that only pleasure matters. A pipe of opium, or the touch of a girl who might tell you she loves you. And then, something happens, as you knew it would. And nothing can ever be the same again.”

On one level The Quiet American is a love story about two men in love with the same woman, both of whom believe have her best interests at heart.  On a deeper level it is about the duplicity surrounding America’s growing involvement in Viet Nam.

quiet-american1The film, and the novel it is adapted from, are set during the early 1950’s.  French forces are busy fighting the communists.  Brendan Fraiser (Power of Conscience), a young aide worker believes the way to save Viet Nam is to introduce a third force to take the place of both the French colonialists and the communist rebels and thereby restore order.

If innocent civilians must be killed to protect other innocent civilians– so be it. (How much evil are you willing to do in pursue of what you see as the greater good?)  It turns out he is an American CIA operative able to put his ideas into action.  Along the way he falls in love with Caine’s mistress.  Caine muses that it is a small leap from wanting to save her country to wanting to save her.

Stephanie Zacharek, writing in Salon.com, calls The Quiet American “the smudged line that often separates loyalty and rivalry in friendships, the bewildering complexity of romantic love, the insecurities wrought by encroaching old age and both the value and the blind treachery of political idealism.”

The film is a wonderful meditation on how politics get all mixed up and tangled into what and who you love.  It is a literate and achingly tender portrayal of a disaster waiting to happen.

The Mating Season – Day Twenty Four – #40movies40days

g_the-mating-season-gene-tierney-john-lund-76c98The Mating Season is a good old fashioned Power of Love story in the best sense of the word.

Ellen McNulty (Thelma Ritter) is forced to sell her hamburger stand, so she decides to visit her son Val (John Lund), who lives in another city. Val has recently married a socialite, Maggie (Gene Tierney). To help her out, her husband hires a maid and promises to send her over right away. In the meantime, Ellen arrives. Maggie, her daughter-in-law, mistakes her for the maid. Ellen begins to tell Maggie who she really is, but she is worried that saying anything might cause Maggie embarrassment, so she doesn’t reveal who she is and decides to pretend to be a maid. The next morning Ellen arrives with her things. She wakes Maggie up and when she realizes that her son didn’t explain everything yet, she keeps pretending to be a maid. She tells him that she will only be underfoot if she lives in the house as a mother-in-law. She eventually talks him into the idea but he doesn’t like it very much.
Maggie’s mother (Miriam Hopkins) decides to come for a visit and she is nothing like Maggie. She is a snob and she doesn’t like Val one bit. While helping Mr. Kalinger (Larry Keating), Ellen realizes that his son, Kalinger Jr. (James Lorimer), is taking credit for work actually done by Val and tells Mr. Kalinger the truth.
Mr. Kalinger then invites Val and Maggie to the party. At the party, Maggie gets into an argument with an important female guest (Cora Witherspoon) after the woman insults her, and Maggie storms out. Val, realizing that this woman carries a lot of influence, forces Maggie to call the party to apologize to the woman. She does so unwillingly, leading to another fight.
The next morning, Val and Maggie make up and steal away in a closet for a kiss. Ellen’s friends are at the door and ask to speak to “Mrs. McNulty”. At this point it is revealed that Ellen is Val’s mother. Maggie is furious with Val for hiding his mother’s identity from her. She and her mother leave for a hotel. Maggie later confronts Val at his office. Val tries to explain himself but Maggie won’t listen. She tells him that he has become a snob and that she is moving to Mexico.
Mr. Kalinger decides to get Val and Maggie together. He convinces Maggie to come to the hotel bar with him for a good-bye drink, knowing that Val will be there for a party. When Maggie sees Val, she again scolds him for trying to hide his mother and leaves the bar. Val leaves the party and rushes to retrieve his mother. He brings her back to the party and begins introducing her to the ‘snobs’. Maggie, who has come back to the bar, witnesses Val introducing his mother to the woman who had insulted her at the earlier party. Ellen tells Maggie’s mother that it is time for both of them to leave the apartment. Ellen lands on her feet, however, as Mr. Kalinger decides to marry her.

Ellen McNulty (Thelma Ritter) runs a hamburger stand that’s underwater with the bank.  She can’t afford the payments and it’s not worth what she borrowed. (Some things never change.)

Her son, Val  (John Lund), has been asking Ellen to come live with him.  She hitchhikes from New Jersey to the Midwest, where her son has a good job in a large manufacturing company (some things have changed drastically).

Ellen’s son, Val, is an upwardly mobile junior executive (Power of Ambition) who has recently married Maggie (Gene Tierney). His new bride is not rich but grew up in the diplomatic corps and has very wealthy and important friends and political connections.

Val hires a maid to help Maggie with their first big dinner party. In the meantime, Ellen arrives unannounced. Maggie, her daughter-in-law, mistakes her for the maid. Ellen (Power of Love) wants to spare Maggie embarrassment, so she doesn’t reveal her true identity.  Instead, Ellen decides to make herself useful and to just go along pretending to be a maid.

137px-Thelma_Ritter_in_The_Mating_Season_trailerEllen convinces Val that she will only be underfoot if she lives in the house as a mother-in-law. She knows Maggie needs help as a young wife and convinces Val to continue the ruse.  Although Val loves his mother, there is something inside him that is deeply embarrassed about his humble beginnings and his unsophisticated mom.

Maggie’s drama queen mother (Miriam Hopkins) arrives for a visit. She is a (Power of Idealism) snob who doesn’t think Val is good enough for her daughter. She is more impressed with the boss’ son Kalinger Jr. (James Lorimer).  Jr. is a playboy and a cad (Power of Excitement), who is also in love with Maggie.  Jr. is also passing off Val’s hard work and ideas as his own.

During the negotiations of an important contact, Maggie (Power of Conscience) takes exception to the rudeness and  snobbery of the main client’s wife (Cora Witherspoon).  After confronting the woman, Maggie storms out of an important social outing surrounding the deal. Val, realizing that the client’s wife carries a lot of influence, forces Maggie to apologize. Maggie does so unwillingly, leading to another fight between the newlyweds.

Ellen skillfully intervenes in the angry aftermath. The young couple make-up with a romantic duck into the closet (the only place they can really be alone). Ellen’s friends arrive at the door unexpectedly and Ellen’s ruse is exposed.

matingMaggie is furious with Val for hiding his mother’s identity from her. She and her mother leave for a hotel. Maggie later confronts Val at his office. She tells him that he has become a snob and that she is leaving him and is moving out of the country.

Mr. Kalinger Sr., who has fallen for Ellen, arranges for Maggie to meet him at hotel bar for a good-bye drink. Val proudly introduces to Ellen to the important clients. Maggie sees how much Val loves his mother. Her heart melts.

Ellen tells Maggie’s mother that it is time for both of them to leave the newlyweds to themselves. Ellen lands on her feet as the fully smitten Mr. Kalinger Sr. asks her to marry him.

No matter how high you rise, nothing is as important as family, no matter how humble or unsophisticated. It’s a timeless lesson.

The China Syndrome – Day Nineteen – #40movies40days

China-Syndrome1-150x150The China Syndrome was released in March 1979 and less than two weeks later the Three Mile Island accident occurred.  Pictures and news reports were eerily similar to the film.  The problem at the actual nuclear plant was caused, much the same as in the film, by technical failure made worse by human error. I’d never seen The China Syndrome and decided to catch up with it after all the news reports of the escalating problems and potential nuclear catastrophe in Japan.

Jane Fonda (Klute, Julia) plays a television news reporter who is not taken very seriously until a routine story at the local nuclear power plant leads her to what may be a cover-up of epic proportions. She and her cameraman, played by Michael Douglas (Wall Street, American President), hook up with a whistleblower at the plant, played by Jack Lemmon (Save the Tiger, Missing). Together they try to uncover the dangers lurking beneath the nuclear reactor and avoid being silenced by the business interests behind the plant. Though topical, the film (produced by Douglas) works on its own as a socially conscious thriller that entertains even as it spurs its audience to think.
In the film, Jane Fonda plays an attractive Power of Ambition television reporter who has been hired mostly for her looks and pleasant manner on camera.  She reports on funny human interest stories, cute animal stories and other charming “local color” stories for a local television station.
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Fonda wants to advance her career, be taken seriously as a reporter and cover more substantive news but she believes the way to get along is to go along.   She’s not one to stand up to or antagonize her bosses.  Over the course of the story her backbone stiffens and she pursues an important story at the potential cost of her career.
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Michael Douglas is a Power of Truth freelance camera man.  He is a 60’s radical hardened into a 70’s skeptic.  He has no problem with being outspoken, even belligerent, and he is quick to dig deeper and take matters into his own hands against his bosses’ instruction.  He sees conspiracies and threats around every corner.  (Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.)
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When filming a puff piece on “energy in California” the two visit a nuclear power plant and are witnesses to some kind of accident.  It’s unclear exactly what happened and the company line is that it was a “potentially costly event that was swiftly contained.”  Reviewing the footage and the strength of the company’s reaction (and their strong-arming tactics with the television station) prompt Fonda and Douglas to believe a cover-up of epic proportions is underway.
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clipboar493594Fonda persuades Jack Lemon, a Power of Conscience whistleblower at the plant who was involved in the “event,”  to share his concerns and warnings.  This information would result in a shut-down costing the company multi-millions of dollars.  Further dastardly doings ensue as the company goes to the most extreme measures to contain the “radioactive” bad publicity that would shut the plant and “contaminate” their bid to build another nuclear plant in in the state.  The China Syndrome is a fast-paced socially conscious thriller that entertains and is surprisingly contemporary.
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Greed, fear and short-cuts are at the heart of a potentially epic disaster in the film.  On a much smaller scale I think some combination of those three things are at the heart of almost every self-inflicted human disaster.  It’s so easy to grab for more than you need, fear facing the truth and to try to take the easy way out.  Each of those things only make the situation worse.
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Energy conservation and thrifty sustainable living can be derided as dowdy, too austere and generally no fun.  But at its heart overconsumption is grabbing for more than you need, fear of facing the truth and trying to take the easy way out (and believing your actions will never catch up with you).  Yes, cold hearted corporations certainly are in for a nice big share of the blame in our current energy and economic problems– but am I taking enough responsibility myself?  Why should I expect them to give up their selfish self-centered ways if I am not willing to give up mine.  Gandhi famously said:  “Be the change you want to see.”

The Rabbit Proof Fence – Day Fifteen – #40movies40days

51zfVWIbLmL._SL500_AA300_This is another instant classic from NetFlix Instant Watch section.  The Rabbit Proof Fence is a powerful story of survival, hope and the triumph of the human spirit.  Three young girls walk 1,500 miles, escaping from a half-caste resettlement and re-education camp to return to their mother and aboriginal homelands.

The Rabbit Proof Fence of the film’s title bisected Australia from East to West and North to South during the 20th century.  It was built in an attempt to separate the wilds of the “bush”, infested with rabbits and other agricultural pests, from valuable farm land.

It’s also a metaphor for the divide bisecting Australian society– the aboriginal people who must be contained and kept at bay and the more valuable white society which must be preserved and protected.  Particularly offensive to white Australian society were the half-caste children, often fathered by the itinerant white workers who build the rabbit-proof fence.

The rabbit isn’t native to Australia (and has no natural predators there).  Rabbits were imported to provide a “bit of hunting sport” for white farmers. Once introduced, the species flourished and over-ran the countryside doing extensive damage. Rabbit infestation has resulted in the extinction of countless native Australian plants and other wildlife.

992085-rabbit-proof-fenceThe children depicted in The Rabbit Proof Fence were separated from their aboriginal mothers and trained as domestic servants for white settlers.  This resettlement and re-education program existed from 1910 to 1971 and resulted in “stolen generations”.

The half-caste girls in these camps were prevented from marrying aboriginal spouses in order to “breed out” their native characteristics.  White unions were promoted and the domestic servant girls were often forced into sexual relations by their white male employers in the lonely underpopulated outback.

Kenneth Branagh plays A.O. Neville Chief Protector of Aborigines, in Western Australia.  He is a classic Power of Conscience character gone to the Dark Side.  (How much evil are you willing to do in the cause of doing what you believe is good?)  In the movie he says, “In spite of himself, the native must be helped.”  In real life he said:

“they have to be protected against themselves whether they like it or not. They cannot remain as they are. The sore spot requires the application of the surgeon’s knife for the good of the patient, and probably against the patient’s will.”

“they have to be protected against themselves whether they like it or not. They cannot remain as they are. The sore spot requires the application of the surgeon’s knife for the good of the patient, and probably against the patient’s will.””they have to be protected against themselves whether they like it or not. They cannot remain as they are. The sore spot requires the application of the surgeon’s knife for the good of the patient, and probably against the patient’s will.”The aboriginal population call him “Mr. Devil” for good reason.

The heroine of the film, 14-year-old Molly, escapes from the Moore River Native Settlement Mission where she and her sisters being held.  She walks (often carrying her 8-year-old sister) across the bush and the desert back to their mother 1,500 miles away.  The Rabbit Proof Fence serves as her guide.

rabbitprooffence-mollyMolly is a young woman with incredible grace, dignity and solid sense of self.  Her journey is mesmerizing, heroic and nothing short of amazing. She evaded white army officers and an expert native aboriginal tracker, all sent to find her and bring her back.  The film is based on real events and the book Molly’s daughter, Doris Pilkington  wrote about her mother’s journey home.  Christine Olsen wrote the screenplay.

One of the most interesting things about this Lenten Project of viewing a movie a day and writing about it– is the number of strong female heroines I’ve discovered.  Their strength is evident in their intelligence or sense of humor or humility or tenacity or rebellion or dignity or wit or sacrifice– or sometimes a combination of these characteristics.  They are very different than most of the male heroes in films today.  This project has been a great start to a list of films every woman should see.