Terminator Salvation – Idealism vs. Conscience

terminator-salvation-etbscreenwritingTerminator Salvation is a solid satisfying summer hit. It’s also a great illustration of the difference between a Power of Idealism character, Marcus Wright (played by Sam Worthington) and a Power of Conscience character, John Connor (played by Christian Bale). Although both men (and both Character Types) are honorable, how each views honor is different. Each man’s emotional journey therefore is distinct.

We first meet a morose Marcus Wright on death row. Dr Serena Kogan (played by Helena Bonham Carter), a researcher who is dying of cancer, makes a passionate appeal to him to be part of a larger project or greater vision. Marcus agrees to “sell” his body to science for a kiss. He kisses Dr. Kogan deeply and says, “So that’s what death tastes like.” This doomed romantic moment is exactly what appeals to and defines a Power of Idealism character.

When Marcus awakes decades later, he finds himself in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by a vicious, relentless, red-eyed mechanical army churning through the remains of human-kind. Marcus begins a long tortuous journey to discover who and what he is and how he fits into this horrifying new world.

Power of Idealism ETB ScreenwritingPower of Idealism characters are most deeply concerned about authenticity, personal identity and the individual vs. society. These characters strive to find their place in the world— Who am I and where do I fit in?— while being acknowledged as unique, special and one-of-a-kind.

When Marcus discovers his extraordinary but horrific nature, he rebels. Dr. Kogan tells him he was designed for a unique purpose and that there is only one of him. He is indeed one-of-a-kind. Marcus refuses to be defined by his circumstance or situation. He will not submit to a larger crushing authority or an inescapable technological imperative. He will define himself.

In true Power of Idealism fashion, Marcus defines himself and becomes the stuff of legend through sacrifice. What makes him human is his heart— both metaphorically and literally. He sacrifices his heart so that the Resistance might live. It reminded me of one of the Psalms: “I am poured out like water, And all my bones are out of joint; My heart is like wax; It is melted within me.” Marcus Wright’s heart melts and he pours his life into John Connor and the hope of the Resistance.

We meet John Connor as the voice and moral authority of those fighting against the machines. At the climax of the movie, the larger Resistance leadership argues to strike a death blow against Skynet when Skynet’s defenses are down. John refuses to do so because such an attack would result in the deaths of masses of human prisoners trapped inside Skynet’s fortress city. John argues that if the Resistance fights with the same cold calculation as the machines– they are no better than machines.

Power of Conscience ETB ScreenwritingPower of Conscience characters are most deeply concerned about rightness, fairness and the higher duty involved in anything they do. Although he wants desperately to end the war, John is not willing to do so at the expense of what he believes is mankind’s higher value of respecting human life. No one is expendable. All human life is precious. He tells those under his command to stand down. They respect John’s moral vision and choose to obey.

Power of Conscience characters believe they are their brother’s keeper. They feel responsible for the greater good and for doing good. These characters wrestle with how far they should go in seeking justice and fairness for others or in standing up against evil. They worry about and struggle with what is the higher duty and what exactly is required of them in response.

Doubt – Truth vs Conscience

Doubt-etbscreenwritingThe movie Doubt, written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, has an emotional disconnect at its core– in the most unsuccessful sense of the word. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is a Power of Conscience character at the center of a Power of Truth story. She is the wrong protagonist for the film and this mistake fatally skews and distorts the story’s emotional focus. It makes the ending feel false (or as described by various critics– “a cop out”). Here’s what went wrong and why.

Meryl Streep plays a classic Power of Conscience protagonist. In all the reviews and press information her character is described variously as: stern, rigid, inflexible, intimidating, judgmental, authoritarian, single-minded, strict, moralistic, harsh, punitive and punishing. Early in the film, she glares at children whispering, fidgeting, slumping or snoozing in Mass and admonishes them with a variety of hisses and thumps on the head or raps on the knuckles. She describes herself a number of times in the movie as “certain” or having “absolute certainty.”

Power of Conscience ETB ScreenwritingPower of Conscience characters see something and immediately “know” if it is right or wrong. If they witness an action or activity they view as improper, immoral or corrupt and they are compelled to act. These characters simply cannot stand by or be silent in the face of perceived injustice or wrong-doing. Inspector Javert, in Les Miserables is another example of a hardened, unforgiving and unrelenting Power of Conscience character in pursuit of a “wrong-doer.” Less dark versions of this Character Type in religious life are Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons and Thomas Becket in Becket. Both men defy a king whose actions they judged as immoral or improper. Both men died as a result.

Suspicion or doubt, by their nature are at the heart of a Power of Truth story. The Story Questions in a Power of Truth film are: Who can I trust? What is really going on here? Did I really see what I thought I saw? Who is my ally and who is my enemy? When does loyalty look like betrayal? When does betrayal look like loyalty? How can I be really certain of anything? What does it all mean?

None of these questions occur to Sister Aloysius. She never doubts her own judgment. She is unwavering in her pursuit of what she “knows” must be the corruption at the heart of Father Flynn’s actions. She is single-minded and sure of herself. She is absolutely determined to root out wrong-doing wherever and however it rears its head in her school.

Sister James (Amy Adams) is the person plagued and tormented by each of these Power of Truth questions. She is torn and doesn’t know what to believe. It is very difficult to suspect someone you genuinely like and admire of a horrible act. Sister James likes and respects the warm charismatic Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the parish priest at the center of the controversy. The pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church turned on the difficulty those in authority had in believing that competent, well-respected and well-liked priests could also be bad men with deeply criminal impulses.

Power of Truth ETB ScreenwritingIf the story is about really is about doubt, then the ages and positions of the nuns should have been reversed. Sister James should have been the older school principal and protagonist. Sister Aloysius should have been a younger gung-ho Power of Conscience nun. If Sister James had been goaded into accusing Father Flynn, despite her uncertainty and doubt, then it would be entirely credible that she would be tormented about whether or not she did the right thing.

A Power of Conscience character cannot be the protagonist of a Power of Truth film without causing an emotional disconnect. That’s why the ending of the film feels so contrived and false. We never quite believe that Sister Aloysius, who is so certain in all things, would inexplicably dissolve into tears of doubt and remorse once she had accomplished her goal– removing a man she believed to be corrupt from her school.

If this is Power of Conscience film then the central issue is not doubt, it is the dangers of executing a God-like judgment of others. If the harsh unyielding Sister Aloyius is the protagonist, then her character should have been proven wrong with horrible results. Her hard, unrelenting, moral certainty should have been her tragic downfall.

Wesley Morris writing in The Boston Globe about the film says: “…The truth is that Sister Aloysius’s steely single-mindedness is actually quite simple, which is why the movie’s (and the play’s) abrupt final scene is a cop-out.”

Raising the Bar – Not Bochco at His Best

raising-the-bar-etbscreenwritingAccording to Media Post Publications: “TNT’s Raising the Bar (Steven Bochco’s new legal show) rocketed to a record-setting 7.7 million viewers in its early September premiere. But in the most recent outing–week four– the show’s viewer balloon has much less air–now down to 2.3 million viewers in its most recent outing (this past week).”

Why aren’t viewers more enthused? Want a quick take-away line: The audience needs to be actively concerned about a character’s sanity, safety or soul to be truly engaged.

Power of Idealism

Mark-Paul Gosselaar plays the show’s hero and nominal protagonist, Jerry Kellerman, a lawyer in the New York City public defender’s office. He is a classic Power of Idealism character. Kellerman is rebellious, passionate, intense, short-tempered and given to explosive dramatic grandstanding on principle. Think of a late-twenties, at the beginning of his career, John McCain with floppy (slightly greasy) hippie-length hair and a baggy suit. Not a pretty sight, and for my taste, an over the top portrayal. There’s too much flailing about and not enough deep smoldering danger, which is key to the most delicious angry young man characters.

Power of Conscience

Jane Kaczmarek, plays Judge Trudy Kessler, Kellerman’s nemesis with an Ann Coulter-style mean streak. Judge Kessler is a Power of Conscience character gone a bit to the Dark Side. She is smart, inflexible, harsh, a stickler for rules and proper conduct and very concerned with “judicial process.” She’d be much more interesting if her desire to rise in elective office were driven by duty and sense of mission rather than the desire for personal accomplishment. She’s a bit blurry right now. Hillary Clinton at her steely best would be a good model here.

Power of Ambiton

Melissa Sagemiller plays Michelle Ernhardt, Kellerman’s girlfriend, and a young prosecutor. She is a beautiful highly-motivated Power of Ambition character who will do anything for a “win.” She is willing to bend the law until it breaks, play fast and loose with the facts and wants to rise quickly in the prosecutor’s office. Not suprisingly, Ernhardt and Kellerman repeatedly clash but their arguments are predictable.

Not Enough Personal Urgency

Unfortunately, everyone is pretty much a stock character without the deep rich internal conflicts so viscerally present in Bochco’s sensational NYPD Blue. There is little personal urgency for any of the characters. The audience doesn’t need to worry for principal character, Jerry Kellerman, like they worried for Andy Sipowicz. The wrenching internal struggle for the character is absent and so the audience’s emotional bond is weak.

The setting has urgency and certainly, crime and punishment is always a high stakes arena. That’s not enough. The audience needs to be actively concerned about a character’s sanity, safety or soul to be truly engaged. The audience should be forced to tune in because personal disaster is always right around the corner. It’s like cheering for your favorite sports team– if you don’t tune in and personally “will” them to victory they could lose! And if they lose, then next time they need you all the more!!

Lack of Complexity

Equally problematic for Raising the Bar, are its rather pat simplistic stories. Everything gets wrapped up neatly in less than 44 minutes. I understand the need to have “stand alone” episodes for commercial reasons but short-cutting story and tidying loose ends in a hurry can cripple authenticity and credibility. Too often the show does this and doesn’t “feel” real. The iconic Law and Order, an endless replayed staple on TNT, does this much better.

The degree of “innocent” accused criminals also hampers authenticity. It is stereotypical to portray everyone represented by the public defender’s offfice as guilty. But it begs credulity to believe so many of those charged are somehow “not guilty.”

Most of the cases have a racial angle and reach for social significance, a Bochco trademark. But in Raising the Bar the really tough questions of racism and the wrenching struggle to protect the rights of individuals vs the safety of society are not tackled in a complex, emotionally gut-wrenching way. NYPD Blue had a much more intense, multi-layered and explosive take on racism that brought the topic alive and made it feel real and very urgent to the story.

At this stage, the show lacks sufficient authenticity and personal urgency to be a hit. I don’t feel compelled to tune in and it looks like many viewers who initially gave the show a look aren’t compelled to come back. Raising the Bar has a second season order but Bochco and company will have to dig deeper if they want a third season.

What Happens in Vegas

WhatHappensinVegas ETBScreenwritingA very long international flight is the perfect time to catch up on movies I missed the first time around.  On this trip I managed to catch up with a high-spirited Romantic Comedy romp that turned out to be a really enjoyable surprise.  The film has its flaws, particularly in its rather pat ending.  The finish is predictable and lacks that little extra twist that lifts this kind of story above the ordinary. But the film does have its virtues.

Joy McNally (Cameron Diaz) is super-conscientious career woman engaged to a man who is exhausted by her organized, detail-oriented uptight attitude.  She is a Power of Conscience character who schedules a meeting with her fiancee to “make a plan to make plans.”  Fed up, he breaks up with her in her apartment hallway.  Joy is humiliated that all their friends are listening as they wait inside for a suprise birthday party for HIM.

Jack Fuller (Ashton Kutcher) has the opposite problem.  He is “not serious boyfriend or husband material.”  He is a Power of Ambition character who is so afraid of failing (and proving he is a loser) that he never takes a gamble or finishes anything.  He is fired by his disgruntled fed-up boss, who also happens to be his father.

Feeling devastated, they both head to Las Vegas to (literally) drown their sorrows. A computer error is the “meet cute” that throws them together in the same room. The two spend a drunken night of true confession and “my life is crappier than your life.” They wake up to discover they are married.

A 3 million dollar jackpot won with Joy’s quarter but played by Jack lands them in front of a judge, in an argument about who can claim the money.  The judge decides that they should remain married for 6 months and attend counseling sessions before splitting up either the money or the marriage. Neat as a pin Joy moves into Jack’s sloppy and disgusting bachelor pad.

Over the course of the film there is a real exchange of gifts.  Joy learns to be less uptight and driven to prove her “worthiness.” Jack learns to believe in himself enough to put his talent on the line.  He becomes the woodworking craftsman (and artist) he was meant to be.

Jack Fuller is a refreshing take on the Power of Ambition.  This Character Type is usually portrayed as an eager young striver in the Tom Cruise mode of Jerry Maguire or Rain Man. Instead, Jack starts out squarely in his fear.  He is paralyzed by his utter conviction (and his father’s belief) that he is a failure.  When Joy speaks up on his behalf, Jack is astonished.  At a corporate retreat she makes him feel like a winner.

Joy is a more conventional Power of Conscience female character.  She is the good girl who works hard, is responsible and plays by the rules.  She is vying for a promotion in a job she hates because that’s the “right” thing to do. Jack teaches Joy the importance of loving what you do and finding time for family and friends.

Check this movie out. It’s not perfect but it hits enough of the right notes to be a fun romp and a satisfying bon bon of entertainment.

Revolutionary or Rebel

tom_joad_ETB ScreenwritingMy last day in Milwaukee is a sausage buying extravaganza.  I stopped at Usingers and bought several varieties with their own special spices.  Flying back to Santa Monica tomorrow.

I’ve been working on the final edit of the Power of Conscience eBook.  That particular Character Type is often confused with the Power of Idealism character.  The distinction between the two is subtle but clear. It is rather like the difference between a revolutionary and a rebel.

A revolutionary is someone who works for political or social change.  The orientation is toward changing and improving society.  The basic orientation of a Power of Conscience character is to seek moral and ethical perfection. They believe they could do better, others could improve and the world could be a better place.

A rebel is a person who resists authority, control, or tradition.  The orientation is more individualistic. The basic orientation of the Power of Idealism character is to seek aesthetic perfection.  Noteworthiness, rarity, distinctiveness, individuality and/or the unusual, idiosyncratic or eccentric are what these characters value most highly in themselves and others.

Power of Conscience characters cause revolution to conform society, as a whole, to a higher moral or ethical standard. Power of Idealism characters rebel against the status quo to resist authority or conformity and to promote or preserve their personal autonomy.

A Power of Conscience character looks at the world like this:

“Wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build– I’ll be there, too.”  Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) in The Grapes of Wrath

A  Power of Idealism character looks at the world like this:

Mildred: “What’re you rebelling against, Johnny?”
Johnny: “Whaddya got?”  Johnny Strable (Marlon Brando) in The Wild One

“And maybe there’s no peace in this world, for us or for anyone else, I don’t know. But I do know that, as long as we live, we must remain true to ourselves.”  Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) in Spartacus

The Dark Knight – Two Face & the Power of Conscience

Two Face ETB ScreenwritingThe Dark Knight is a huge blockbuster and a fascinating complex film.  One of the reasons it is so popular with audiences is the clarity of the Character Types in the story.  I’ll look at each of The Dark Knight characters over the next several days and discuss each Character Type in the film.

Let’s start with Harvey Dent/Two Face (Aaron Eckhart).  This character is an iconic Power of Conscience character.

Power of Conscience characters know instinctively if something is wrong, unjust, unfair, improper, corrupt, evil or out of line.  Their judgment and response is swift and immutable  These characters are propelled forward by personal outrage and moral indignation, usually on another’s behalf.

Harvey Dent’s moral condemnation of crime fuels him to clean up Gotham and make it safe for ordinary citizens.  He is a vigilant prosecutor of evil.  He catches and punishes criminals within the strict confines of the legal system.  He is a “white knight” and a moral hero.

After he is burned and Rachel dies, Dent moves toward his Dark Side and becomes Two Face, a twisted vigilante and self-appointed judge, jury and executioner.  As Two Face, he is a fascinating counterpart to Batman.  (More on the Dark Knight in a later post.)

Harvey, or any other Power of Conscience character, moves to the Dark Side by believing the ends justify the means (evil behavior for a moral purpose).  The burning question for these characters is how bad a thing are they willing to do for (what they consider) a good cause? What ends justify what extreme means? Incrementally, they stumble down a slippery slope taking actions which they feel are justified, until they become exactly like the oppressors, persecutors or criminals they once loathed.

Harvey moves toward his Dark Side because of his outraged sense of fairness and justice.  He explains:  “You thought we could be decent men in an indecent world. But you were wrong; the world is cruel, and the only morality in a cruel world is chance. (holds up his coin) Unbiased. Unprejudiced. Fair.”

The “fair” and impartial flip of a coin will be his “moral compass” from now on.  He is a man without mercy or compassion.  There is, however, no true justice without  the humanity of those qualities.  There is only revenge, which is a bitter poisonous force of destruction.

He will be a fascinating villain to watch.

The Power of Conscience character will be covered in great detail in my forthcoming eBooks on The Nine Character Types