Sister Rose on Without A Trace

without-a-trace-etbscreenwritingThe television series, Without a Trace, is a classic Power of Truth story. A good friend, Sister Rose Pacatte, wrote about a recent episode “Miracle Worker” in her blog.

My comments about her post are in (parenthesis).

Sister Rose writes:

Did you see Without a Trace last night? I thought it was extraordinary – about a weeping statue in a pub, the people who find it, and an authentic and touching look at sadness, faith, lack of faith, doubt, hope, love and mercy.

(Laurie: This episode explored profound Power of Truth questions like: Who can I trust? Did I see what I thought I saw? What is really going on here? Who is hiding something? Am I being deceived? What do I really believe? How can I be absolutely certain? What does it all mean?)

Using the statue (character) of St. Therese, a French Carmelite nun (1873 – 1897) in the episode was so appropriate because she had her own dark night of the soul and she is known for this. The episode, entitled “Miracle Worker”, was a story with layers of dark nights for some of the usual characters (especially Jack played by Anthony La Paglia and Samantha played by Poppy Montgomery) and a teenage girl, her uncle and her father.

The mercy and rays of light that come from faith and wanting to believe play out in very believable ways. It is a complex episode that was deftly written and rendered. I think this long-running show, now in its 7th season (CBS, Tuesdays, 10pm) deserves thoughtful attention because of its consistently human and catholic themes (little “c” and sometimes big “C”). This episode offers much to talk about around the water cooler – and in sermons and homilies too.

“Miracle Worker” is a perfect example of the sacramentality of television and cinema stories: the outward expression of inner realities.

A friend of mine who is a spiritual director told me back in 2002 that she thought Without a Trace is a Good Shepherd show: the FBI characters, despite their flaws, go in search of the lost, often at great personal cost. As they search for others, they search for their own core self, for meaning that transcends their lives.

(Laurie: This classic Power of Truth narrative territory. These stories begin with a obvious question, mystery or crime. During the course of the investigation a larger truth is revealed. In this case, about faith or the lack thereof. In the end, the investigator discovers some truth about him or herself).

Last night’s “Without a Trace” was Episode 12: “Miracle Worker”. I couldn’t find the entire episode online but there are clips. It may run again on Saturday:

(Laurie: Thanks Sister Rose for permission to reprint your post.)

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.”

#TypesTuesday – Mad Men and Power of Truth

mad_men ETB Screenwriting

Here’s how AMC describes the show on the official website: “Returning for its second season, the Golden Globe®-winning series for Best TV drama and actor will continue to blur the lines between truth and lies, perception and reality. The world of Mad Men is moving in a new direction — can Sterling Cooper keep up? Meanwhile the private life of Don Draper becomes complicated in a new way. What is the cost of his secret identity?”

That’s a description of a classic Power of Truth story.  Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is a classic Power of Truth protagonist.  Note the tagline of the series:  “Where the truth lies.”

These kinds stories are about issues of loyalty and betrayal. They ask: What exactly is loyalty? What is betrayal? How do we betray ourselves? How do we betray others? Can you be loyal to someone and betray them at the same time? When should you let go of old loyalties and move on?  How is the ground shifting beneath you?  What is real and what is an illusion? Who or what can you trust?

All these issues were front and center in the first season.  They had a real urgency and the potential for disastrous consequences.

Over the course of initial 13 episodes we learned Dan Draper isn’t who he seems.  He is leading a secret life on a number of levels.  He stole another man’s identity in Korea (by switching dog tags with a dead officer).  He is cheating on his wife.  He is a slick master of illusion in an industry that thrives on selling half-truths and the manipulation of perceptions.  As the season progressed we worried and waited for hammer to drop.

Mad Men has authenticity working for it in even the smallest details.  Everything on the sets, in the background, what the people wear, how they talk, what they talk about is absolutely true to the period. As important as authenticity is, a series can’t survive on authenticity alone.

The story also needs a sense of urgency.  It’s this urgent dramatic thrust that is missing in the second season. Don seems to have settled into a feeling of utter weariness and discontent.  He’s increasing disenchanted with his job.  He seems bored and depressed (taking the afternoon off to stare laconically at a French New Wave film at the cinema).

This doesn’t make for compelling or urgent viewing. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the second season opened to a series high of 2 million viewers.  People were curious after all the Emmy nominations.  But a significant percentage didn’t stick around to see a second episode.  Viewership plummeted to 1.3 million the following week.

My prediction is that if the pace doesn’t pick up, if Don isn’t in real danger of his lies and shady past catching up with him, viewers just won’t care.

Right now, Don just seems depressive and cynical.  If he doesn’t struggle harder to conceal his secrets, if he doesn’t start paying a price for his double life, if we don’t see more active stories about loyalty and betrayal (with dire consequences) I predict the show will drop viewers.

Another example of a Power of Truth character and show is The X Files and Fox Mulder.  That show’s taglines were:  “The Truth Is Out There,” “Deny Everything” and “Trust No One.”  These slogans with a slightly different context  could also apply to Don Draper.

You will find dozens of other examples and a full explanation of this Character Type in the Power of Truth eBook.

Brett Favre – The Power of Truth

brett.favre ETB ScreenwritingIt is impossible to be in Wisconsin and not be caught up by the Brett Favre/Green Bay Packers drama.  Brett is a real life example of a Power of Truth character and the recent contretemps has played out in classic form.

Power of Truth characters value loyalty and commitment very highly, but they can be very unsettled and indecisive. They can become self-doubting and suspicious to the point of paralysis.  At that point, they no longer trust their own instincts.

What kicked the current drama off was Brett’s indecisiveness.  After much back and forth (will he or won’t he), Brett finally retired after the 2007 football season.  Except maybe not.  The Packers’ GM and Head Coach were ready to fly to Brett’s hometown and meet with him, about playing the 2008 season, when Brett changed his mind again.  No, he didn’t want to talk.  And then Brett decided yes he would play.

The Packers’ wanted a statement of loyal commitment before proceeding further.  Brett refused to give such a statement.  He seemed to think his loyalty was obvious and he was hurt by the Packers’ disloyalty to him.  He seemed to spiral into increasing distrust.

In their darkest moments, these characters worry that they can’t believe anyone or anything.  They suspect everyone is lying to them and every situation is not what it seems.  They constantly look for little clues to confirm their doubts, suspicions and anxieties.

These characters continually test and probe when operating out of fear. They insist others constantly prove themselves.  They try to read the secret meaning in, or second-guess every move, every action and every decision made by others.

The Dark Knight & The Power of Truth

darkknightbatman ETB screenwritingI am still looking out over the hills and trees of the rolling area surrounding the Mississippi River, thinking about the latest Batman movie. The Dark Knight is a powerful and classic Power of Truth film.

In a Power of Truth film things are never what they seem.  None of the major characters in The Dark Knight are what they seem at first glance.  The tangled undergrowth of human duplicity catches and pulls at every character in the film.

In the beginning of the film, Batman tries to find out the truth about one thing: a spectacular bank robbery.  Over the course of the film, he finds out the truth about a larger thing:  what happens to human nature under the extreme duress of chaos.  In the end, he finds out the truth about himself:  he is both stronger and weaker than he imagined.

In the movie, criminal acts are just the surface.  This surface, upon closer inspection, is tangled up with its own deeper undergrowth of human darkness.  Once the surface of the crime is cracked, chasms open that no one could have imagined.

Batman is continually looking for answers that elude him.  He is caught in the eternal Power of Truth paradox:  Seeking certainty in an uncertain world only brings more uncertainty.  Who is he?  Does Gotham need him?  Will he break his “one rule” to save the woman he loves?  How  “bad” is he willing to be to do “good”?  How easy would it be for him to permanently cross over into the Dark Side?

Christian Bale, the actor who plays Batman says:  “Now you have not just a young man in pain attempting to find some kind of an answer, you have somebody who actually has power, who is burdened by that power, and is having to recognize the difference between attaining that power and holding on to it.”  What is the real truth about Batman?

Not only is Bruce Wayne not what he seems.  Batman is not what he seems.  At the end of the film, he takes on the burden of Two Face’s crimes to give Gotham a “hero,” turning himself into someone he’s not in the eyes of the public. Batman tries to “save” Gotham from the truth.

Lt. James Gordon speaks of Batman’s new role saying:  “Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now… and so we’ll hunt him, because he can take it. Because he’s not a hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector… a dark knight.”

Batman says:  “Sometimes, truth isn’t good enough, sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.”  Alfred, by destroying Rachel’s final farewell letter echoes Batman sentiments and saves Batman, himself, from the awful truth that Batman had lost Rachel long before she died.

Everyone in the film is bound up in the tangled undergrowth of human duplicity.

There’s more about Power of Truth characters and stories in my forthcoming eBooks on The Nine Character Types.