The Genius of Blood Simple as the Forerunner of a Certain Coen Genre
January 11, 2016 2:45 pm
The Coen Brothers’ debut film Blood Simple leaves the audience speechless at its fade out. It sets the tone for a specific genre of Coen movies about ‘life getting ridiculously complicated for the silliest reasons’. As brilliantly articulated by J. K. Simmons’s character in the finale of Burn After Reading (another incarnation of the same Coen genre), ‘What did we learn here?’ echoes in our tickled minds. What did we just experience and why?
All we really know about the characters in Blood Simple is their motivation and very little else. Not much at all about how they met, what they are like, what kind of a childhood they might have had, how they feel about life and even each other. What we do know is the basics: the nature of their relationship with each other, what they want and what they don’t want. The first few scenes establish this simple information with economical grace, then the characters’ goals naturally fall into place and conflict alone drives the rest of the way to fade out.
This almost childlike simplicity of Blood Simple is what leaves us dumbfounded in the end. Seasoned viewers might say ‘but movies are supposed to establish backstory, deliver a message, and include several subtexts from which we learn something new about life; above all, movies are supposed to have depth and purpose!’ This is partially true; the more complex and furnished with substance and dimension movies are the more intrigued and satisfied we tend to be with the outcome. However, it is precisely its straightforward approach that reveals the movie’s essential mission and the source of its delight.
The genius of Blood Simple is in its non-hesitant way of only giving us the story’s bare essentials: motivation, conflict, goals, setbacks and resolution. In fact, if Blood Simple does only one thing well, it is to remind us that these five points are all you really need to tell a story. Contrary to all the complex storylines and character development found in many great movies, Blood Simple dares us to see stories for what they primarily are: vehicles for entertaining unusual situations from the points of view of interesting characters with specific desires and idiosyncrasies.
When we are able to go past the story’s seeming pointlessness, we arrive at quite a fundamental point the movie inadvertently makes about humanity. Blood Simple thrives on a primary fear that we all share: losing control. The characters are in the dark about what’s happening throughout the picture and they continually miss the pieces of the puzzle which would help them make sound decisions. It is in a sense a parody of what happens when you have no grasp of what’s going on and when you are stuck in a downward spiral of wrong information resulting in wrong decisions culminating in more ignorance and more stupidity.
An advanced version of this same hilariously annoying downward spiral is found in Fargo, where characters are painfully misinformed and acting foolishly. Along with other variations of this particular Coen genre such as Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou and Burn After Reading, Blood Simple and Fargo draw from a rare combination of humor and tension born out of the fear of loss of control.
A prominent reason for Blood Simple’s appeal to the audience is its realistic persisting problem: killing ain’t easy. We relate to all four central characters who at some point in the story try to kill another. Killing turns out to be such a difficult ordeal that we instantly bond with the characters and their plight. They are all innocent and guilty at the same time in their own ways; they all honestly struggle for understandable reasons and as a result we root for them. The fact of their inability to foresee potential consequences of their actions makes them all the more loveable and real.
Similar to its successors, Blood Simple’s setting adds a crucial dimension to the story. The characters live in a town that feels abandoned by and disconnected from the rest of the world. It’s scarcely populated by people whose actions feel ineffectual in regards to everything and everybody else. It’s as if we are examining a cage in a zoo where improbable mishaps are common occurrence. Blood Simple’s setting has a twofold effect as it supports a sense of realism because it feels so common and bland, but at the same time it makes the ludicrousness of the action probable and even likely because of its strange and neglected atmosphere.
In the finale, Frances McDormand’s character Abby singlehandedly ends the vicious cycle of violence. She sheds her fear of having no grasp and control of what’s going on and surrenders her doubts about her ability to take charge. We are satisfied that she makes it through, but equally confused about how things have gotten so bad. And again, what did we learn here? Nothing really, but we did find ourselves in the shoes of four people who somehow made sense to us and we entertained a strange set of situations which demonstrated a delicious combination of tension and humor. Most importantly, we witnessed the first specimen of an irresistible genre of Coen movies we have since come to love.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on January 8, 2016
New Year’s Recommendation for Screenwriters
December 31, 2015 10:25 pm
“When asked how [the illiterate Sixth Patriarch of Zen] could understand the truth of the Buddhist texts if he couldn’t read the words, the Sixth Patriarch raised his arm and pointed to the moon. Truth is like the moon in the sky. Words are like a finger. A finger can point to the moon’s location, but it is not the moon. To see the moon, you must look past the finger. To look for the truth in books, the Sixth Patriarch was saying, is like mistaking the finger for the moon.”
This little Zen koan I came across in Ruth Ozeki’s wonderful novel ‘A Tale for the Time Being’ reminded me of a classic issue in screenwriting. Let’s think of the moon in this Zen koan as an analogy for a good story and the finger as the methods that supposedly point to how to write one. There are a great many people, including myself, who study screenwriting methods to find more effective ways to write better-resonating stories, just like there are many people who study the Buddhist texts to understand and practice Buddhism and attain enlightenment. I wonder though, if someone who is illiterate in the methodology of screenwriting couldn’t look past the methods to directly experience and deliver the essence of a good story. If a ‘good story’ is the truth we all are striving to arrive at in screenwriting, can we be mistaking the ideas on screenwriting for the truth in it?
While I am a true believer in studying, analyzing, reflection, comparison, methodology and so on, I also feel that theory in general may create grounds for a trap where our writing minds and our written words are suffocated with all the knowledge, ideas and limitations that come from over-preparation. We should be careful not to let the theory get in the way of the creative power of the practice of writing. A free mind is a lively imagination’s best friend. It’s surely important to furnish that free mind with a great big library of inspiring inhabitants, but it’s equally important not to restrict it with preconceived notions of what it should eventually produce.
Methodology can also become a trap as it encourages procrastination. Long after a writing project is ripened with enough ideas and enthusiasm, we can be inclined to come up with endless material to read and more interesting methods to apply that we may be risking losing the passion required to dive into it. Sometimes, the more we dwell the more we lose focus and drive.
Having read quite a few screenplays, I feel that there is a drought of creative juice and courageous daring in scripts. There is also a huge lacking in form and method – the essentials for the craft. Whether it be your ‘practice’ or your ‘theory’, be sure to nourish them just the right amount and avoid being limited by either of them. Take care to always look for the ‘truth’ of a good story within the madhouse of your imagination and make sure not to get bogged down by the finger while searching for the moon.
I wish you the moon in the New Year!
Practice of NOT Writing
December 7, 2015 4:01 pm
If you’re in the dangerous habit of reading tips for screenwriters, you will see that the most common advice for screenwriters (and writers in general) is to write, write, write… Keep writing! Don’t ever give up! The more you write the better a writer you will be! This message must have resonated with many, since I see an awful lot of screenwriters (mostly beginning writers, in my experience) churning out new scripts incessantly, seemingly a dozen a year, or may be more. Well, my humble advice is: STOP WRITING!
For one, there is a fine line between when is a good time to quit trying to become a screenwriter altogether and when you should be fuelled with a stronger desire to keep going. I think the writers who succeed as screenwriters are not the ones who don’t give up, but those who CANNOT give up. If there is nothing else that makes sense for you to do, then you don’t have to worry about whether you should go on or not; you just have to keep doing what you gotta do. For those who can think of other things that they would like to do and are good at, may be it’s better to move on sooner rather than later. Most important thing to do is be intelligent about how you look at your work and listen to your gut feeling.
Second, I will bet for every million people who are writers or wannabe writers, there are about a thousand who are good writers. Out of that thousand, I would guess only a hundred would be consistently producing good material fast. Talented and prolific writers like Stephen King would be on that list of rare species. For the rest of us, simply writing a lot doesn’t make us better writers but only gives us more examples of bad-to-mediocre writing. Writing a lot will no doubt make a good writer a brilliant one, but writing LESS may be a much better remedy for bad writing. You may be one of the thousand good writers out of those million die-hards, but I am writing this letter to the 999,000 of us out there.
I have taken up the strange profession of spotting and solving screenwriting problems. I think I have done this partly because I have an academic background in filmmaking and consider myself more academic than creative, and partly as a way to avoid my own bad writing. I have been fortunate to read more scripts than usual recently and it led me to wonder why so many people write so much. Every script does have some interesting aspects that could be developed, reformed and evolved into good stories, this is true. However, I often notice how quickly and carelessly stories are (or feel like they are) put together. How easy it is for most to transform half-baked ideas into less than half-baked stories. Why? Why keep on writing when you have never seen anything like what you’ve written on the big screen; when your script doesn’t resemble any movie that you love?
Before you even begin to compare your work with others, ask: Why do you love the movies that you love? What is it about those stories and characters that touch your core? Study those stories that are so great, find out why they are good, and then find out how they got to be good. After that, you can look back at your script and compare your findings in both. Why oh why yours is not as good as ‘that’ and how you can make it that good. Spot the differences; write down those differences, and again, figure out what in your writing and life experience may be missing that you weren’t able to write that good.
Do you really think the difference between the two comes from writing like a maniac without stopping to question whether it is any good? May be, but not necessarily. Do you think it’s because those great writers were born with the good writing gene? May be, but not necessarily. I think the most obvious difference is that good writers are first and foremost better at living than writing. Living and observing the act of living is the main resource for any writer. Writers can be socially awkward and dysfunctional in real life, but it is in the observing of it all that makes the difference. It doesn’t matter what you and your life are like, it matters how you understand and process it.
A gift for imagination probably comes next and I don’t think that’s necessarily God-given either. I think the gift of imagination is bestowed due to having gathered so much observation and emotional experience that you are able to empathize with a door handle. You can empathize with people and things so much and so well that you can make anything up and still feel your way into the veins of the story that is living in it. For your imagination to grow, don’t just watch movies because the process of watching a feature-length movie is so quick; you follow the plot but you hardly notice the details. In addition to watching movies, read books. When you read, places, people, settings, objects, feelings, moments germinate and flourish in your imagination. The more of those you digest in your mind and heart the bigger a library of stuff you will have to draw from in your own writing. This is how you grow imagination: by imagining more stuff, slowly and thoughtfully.
Probably only the third trick to good writing would be the actual practice of writing. NOT the practice of writing for the sake of writing, but the practice of intelligent writing that comes from intelligent living and observing. I think there is a secret for the practice of writing and it’s hidden in the sacred times in between writing spurts, meaning when you DON’T write, meaning when you live and breathe and do your laundry and wash the dishes and walk your kid to school. It is in these ordinary moments that you are a potential protagonist rather than a writer who orchestrates uninteresting characters that don’t feel real. YOU are real when you’re doing your laundry and thinking about the fight you had with your wife last night and fearing that she might bring it up again or sulk all day and how you should compose yourself so you can survive this last storm. Watch yourself while you pour the detergent and purse your lips at the thought of last night’s quarrel and how your heart skips a beat when you momentarily reminisce a time when you never had fights.
There is a story emerging, developing and ending in your act of living every day. You can project the same sensibility that is required for watching that story unfold inside you onto any character you might think up and what you will end up with is a story with conflict, motivation, goals and desires, risks, tension, obstacles, stakes, lessons and resolution. YOU ARE SKIPPING THE ONGOING STORY YOU’RE LIVING AS YOU CONTINUE TO WRITE STUFF THAT DON’T REALLY HAPPEN QUITE THAT WAY, STUFF THAT DON’T MATTER, STUFF THAT ISN’T MEANINGFUL OR IMPORTANT. So, stop the writing and concentrate on the living, and observing that living. Pay attention to the intricacies of your thoughts and emotions for there is no screenwriting book or advice column that could be more useful to you than what you already have going on in you and around you.
Of course, don’t stop writing altogether and spend your time staring at walls playing with your hair. Be aware of your act of living first. Then be aware of your writing and what’s not working with it. Figure out why. Don’t fool yourself. Write less and read more. Do less and notice more. Look less and see more. Worry less and feel more. Try less and listen more. Write less and live more. Live more and pay attention more. Then… write what you know and feel about life and how that life works. How people in that life work. How you, as the unique representative of all of mankind, live and function in this life that is nothing but a story. See that story and write that story.
In any case, this is what I tell myself as I tumble through my own ordinary life and my advice doesn’t really matter. Susan Sontag says “a novel worth reading [or, a story worth telling] is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world. It’s a creator of inwardness.” My question to you is: how would you create inwardness without stopping to go inward?
— Excerpt from The Paris Review interview with Susan Sontag, The Art of Fiction No. 143. Read full interview by Edward Hirsch here.
The Great Beauty – Paolo Sorrentino’s Masterful Musings on Life and its Meaning
November 18, 2015 4:24 pm
The Great Beauty presents the quintessential European perspective on life and cinema. The contrast between European and American traditions of not only movie-making but living couldn’t have been more stark than in Paolo Sorrentino’s take on life, its meaning and its cinematic representation.
How do you make a movie about nothing – a spiritual nothingness that is the most painful kind to feel and to narrate. The Great Beauty tells a story that can hardly be described in conventional storytelling jargon. By not even attempting a progression of loosely tied events, Sorrentino does what many filmmakers would understandably shy away from doing (let alone devoting an epic 2.5 hours of screen time), namely a portrait of life with all its disappointments, resentments, pointlessness, hopelessness and lifelessness. This is not exactly entertaining material, nor is it an easy subject matter to tackle. And yet, Sorrentino does it like the masters of Italian cinema did it beautifully in the past. Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and 8 ½ and Antonioni’s La Notte are a few of the Italian masterpieces that are evoked by this modern incarnation.
Similar to its predecessors, in The Great Beauty, Rome’s wealthy, intellectual, emotionally exhausted class of socialites suffers from an unbearable existential torment. As the historical and religious heart center of Europe, Rome and its eternal prisoners are buried under the weight of their own past. A perfect representative of the old and jaded breed of a European intellectual is Jep Gambardella – a successful journalist who had faded as a writer after his award-winning first book. Jep possesses the wisdom of someone who got so bitter that he has fostered the ability to see things from a higher perspective – the perspective of a sage who no longer struggles but simply accepts and flows with what life has to offer.
It is striking that historically and culturally the European hero is the polar opposite of the American hero: old vs. young, hopeless vs. hopeful, unmotivated vs. enthusiastic, resentful vs. genial, aimless vs. goal-oriented, consumed vs. consuming, slow and ponderous vs. fast and buoyant; over-thinking and over-talking vs. relentlessly doing, doing, doing.
In the same way, aesthetics of European cinema sharply opposes its American counterpart. If you watch The Great Beauty after watching a hundred American movies, it comes as a shock to the mind and the senses. The structure feels warped, the speed is confusing if not mind-numbing; you begin to feel, hear, and see all kinds of details that you never had the freedom to explore.
You can feel the Roman cobblestones under your feet, smell the night air with its coolness and perfume, hear the night bugs forever chiming, notice the water trickling down the marble, feel yourself lost in the buzz and mist of a throbbing nightlife… Just like Jep, you feel like a wildlife observer in the city-bound wilderness of humanity. All without a story to crack open and consume to satisfy your insatiable mind.
Sorrentino’s uncanny ability to completely ignore a cut-and-dried way of storytelling is remarkable and it is also typically European. His camera’s carefree, aimless, fluid, bee-like movement from moment to moment gives us time to see, enjoy and digest endless material without the interference of our rational minds constantly asking questions and seeking connection and meaning. The structure is more vertical than horizontal – a bird’s eye view of chunks of story; it feels like any given sequence could be isolated from the others, placed anywhere in the storyline and it would all still make sense. It is not a story per se, but a panorama, like a scientific micro-examination of certain cells representing the giant organism they belong to. All the stuff that makes European cinema, or art cinema, a tough audio-visual experience is handled so expertly that one is able to shake off the frown and the yawn and experience (rather than passively observe) life as it happens.
Having devoured, studied and admired American cinema for so long, watching The Great Beauty took me back to my university days when I immersed myself in European cinema and thoroughly enjoyed Italian masters like De Sica, Rosellini, Fellini, Antonioni, Pasolini and so many others. (I confess I fast-forwarded my first screening of L’Avventura.) Having lived in Europe and in America, The Great Beauty reminded me how differently people can live life and express it through the movies. The fact that history and culture are so tightly ingrained in filmmaking is in itself a compassionate salute to humanity.
The Great Beauty is evidence to how European it is to project human emptiness and misery on screen without much in the way of action; how European it is to talk about the importance of roots and “the embarrassment of being in this world”; how European it is to resort to numbness in the face of existential tragedy – “it’s just a trick”. The Great Beauty is a jolt to a conformist way of living, filmmaking and film-viewing. The simple honesty of talking about life as it is is the most energetic, refreshing and positive message to give a contemporary audience. It is so truthful and unapologetic that it is impossible to walk out of The Great Beauty and feel like you haven’t found ‘the great beauty’. But then again, Jep would be quick to remind us, it’s all just a trick.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on November 17, 2015
Mountainfilm for Everyone
June 20, 2015 3:37 pm
“…how strange it is to risk yourself for a mountain, but how central to the experience is that risk and the fear it brings with it… Life, it frequently seems in the mountains, is more intensely lived the closer one gets to its extinction: we never feel so alive as when we have nearly died.” – Robert MacFarlane, Mountains of the Mind
I had the fortune of attending Telluride Mountainfilm Festival this year. I have been to many film festivals before and although I love documentaries, I thought a festival that primarily concerns itself with mountains might be too limited in scope. I quickly found out that in addition to climbing movies, the film program encompasses all sorts of adventures in nature, manifestations of human effort in any walk of life, environmental and political issues, better yet, ruminations on the future of our Earth and humanity. Still, I thought for a non-climbing, non-skiing indoor creature like myself, it might be too sporty, or too factual, or too dark… I didn’t know a thing.
The day before we arrived in Telluride, my husband, who lived the life of a climbing bum for a decade himself, announced that Dean Potter had just died. “Who’s that?” I asked. That’s how clueless I was. Dean happened to be one of the most innovative and influential climbers of his generation, a long-time friend to Mountainfilm, and simply a truly luminous soul. He died flying into his favorite place on Earth, the Yosemite Valley. My husband had just taken me to Yosemite a few weeks before the festival and now those incredible peaks had a new meaning for me – death.
As it is my nature, I blamed those rocks for alluring so many wonderful people to engage in such deadly love affairs with them. I don’t know what it was about Dean Potter’s death that so captivated me, but the whole festival weekend felt like a mental and emotional investigation into the reasons why humans go to such great lengths to experience being in nature.
Meru was one of the first films I saw at Mountainfilm. I have to say, at first, it confirmed my hesitation to put climbers on a pedestal for their courage and strength. In Meru a very talented and experienced climbing trio ventures to climb a peak that was considered an impossible ascent at the time. Despite a serious head injury and an alarming avalanche incident for two members of the team only months before the expedition, they go ahead with their plan. Their determination to climb Meru would have been crazy even in perfect health, so you can imagine a mortal ground-dweller like myself would grow uneasy with these guys’ insane obsession with a summit. I was yet to see why this was…
Later in the weekend I watched Valley Uprising – a chronicle of 60 years of climbing in Yosemite National Park. Not only do we get to see notorious world-class climbers pushing the boundaries of the sport, but we are also introduced to (or reminded of) how a sport (or any act of passion) can be a rebellion against the presumed limits of human potential. Absorbing image after image and story after story of men and women watching El Capitan in total awe and evident yearning gave me a clearer perspective on what’s up with these people. Climbing, or being at one with a rock or a mountain, must be about freedom. Freedom to be by oneself in one’s most receptive and vulnerable state of being – in one’s purest form. I’m just guessing…
There were more relatable films that helped me delve ever deeper into our diverse experience as humans. I particularly enjoyed a selection of shorts that offered little glimpses of life that sparkled beyond their confines:
Denali might be the most touching tale of friendship between a man and his dog.
The Fisherman’s Son is an inspiring story of how a Chilean surfer’s passion for riding the Ocean waves in his little fishing town grew into making history as one of the best big-wave riders in the world, and as an advocate for the protection of the Chilean coast.
The Reinvention of Normal redefines the meaning of the ‘think outside the box’ adage, brimming with odd originality and playful persistence to transform what’s considered normal.
The Important Places is a father and son’s 28-day journey down the Colorado River where they find beauty, wonder and a deep connection with nature and each other.
We are Fire is a look at the Gulabi Gang of India through a radiant woman’s search for justice and equality.
Among the wonderful selection of feature-length documentaries were Frame by Frame. It tells the story of four Afghan photojournalists who strive to depict the truth about the Afghan people under post-Taliban regime, suggesting change can happen one frame at a time.
How to Change the World is another story of how a small group of people can make a big difference. It recounts how Greenpeace ignited the unstoppable power of direct environmental action to inform and mobilize masses and engender social movements. Personal conflicts among the team members juxtapose the diversity of human perspectives with the uniting power of a great cause.
Entertaining a different angle, The Yes Men are Revolting demonstrates the power of humor in revolutionizing our minds about the biggest danger we face today – climate change. It feels less like a series of environmental protests, and more like a comedy show made even more hilarious because of its truth and effectiveness. Personal sacrifices, disappointments and relentless perseverance are skillfully woven into the quirky fabric of this gem of a movie.
Two of my favorite films were beautiful manifestations of human ingenuity. Landfill Harmonic is one of the most uplifting stories you will see, where anything feels possible. A group of under-privileged children who live near a landfill in Paraguay begin learning classical music under the guidance of their teacher. A crafty landfill worker supplies the children with classical instruments made out of scrap. And off they go to win the hearts of people around the world. The film is a testimony that great things can emerge from the direst circumstances.
On the other hand, in Very Semi-Serious we find relatively privileged people working very hard to live their dream – to be published cartoonists in the New Yorker. The film is not only a most entertaining compilation of cartoons in the history of the magazine, but also an inspiring look at the world of accomplished and beginning cartoonists, daily conquering their egos to keep learning and growing. The New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff’s story beautifully frames a picture of the value of passion, hard work and humor.
Needless to say, it was impossible to fit all the movies on my long wish-list into a short weekend. Among the titles I will make every effort to watch are: Being Evel, Cerro Torre, The Diplomat, Drawn, The Last Patrol, The Man vs. the Machine, No Cameras Allowed, Racing Extinction, Unbranded and Les Voyageurs Sans Trace.
In a nutshell, what I learned in my week in Telluride at the Mountainfilm Festival is this: the way to achieving anything that is worthfilming (and, literally or figuratively, worth dying for) is to do something unimaginably courageous. And the good news is you don’t need to climb mountains for it. Whether it’s getting published in the New Yorker or becoming an international musician playing your recycled instrument, there is a personal summit to reach for everyone and it’s worth it.
No matter what you think you will get out of it, make plans to attend the next Mountainfilm Festival to taste a potent slice of inspiration, which will no doubt give you the boost you need to make the leap into your version of greatness. May the Mountainfilm be with you!
Let It Rip Before the Next Oscars
February 26, 2015 6:01 am
I don’t have a great deal to say about the Oscars this year. As a mother of a young one and a member of a crazy world-dwelling family, I only had the chance to watch ‘Birdman’ and ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’. The former I loved and wrote about (see Snyder’s Beat Sheet Applied to Inarritu’s Birdman), the latter I saw as yet another cute idea only Wes Anderson could spew forth.
What I do want to talk about is this: I feel there is a subtle but noteworthy connection between the qualities all Oscar nominees must surely possess and these words I came across in the book I am currently reading, Annie Dillard’s ‘An American Childhood’:
“There was joy in effort, and the world resisted effort to just the right degree, and yielded to it at last.”
— Everyone who is engaged in a creative endeavor must share these feelings: The world resists and resists our efforts for as long as it can, for good reason, until it gloriously gives in. This must be the experience of those whose work eventually reach world audiences.
“Just once I wanted a task that required all the joy I had. Day after day I had noticed that if I waited long enough, my strong unexpressed joy would dwindle and dissipate inside me, over many hours, like a fire subsiding, and I would at last calm down. Just this once I wanted to let it rip. Flying rather famously required the extra energy of belief, and this, too, I had in superabundance.”
— I’d like to imagine that everyone who was in the Dolby theatre on Sunday had spent all the joy they had in the tasks that demanded it of them. They must have all ‘let it rip’ while they shed blood, sweat and tears that go into the business of making movies.
“What I was letting rip, in fact, was my willingness to look foolish… Having chosen this foolishness, I was a free being. How could the world ever stop me, how could I betray myself, if I was not afraid?”
— Welcoming foolishness to the bitter end must be what it feels like to follow your absurd passion that many people are ready to tell you is a lost cause.
“…what was I to myself, really, but a witness to any boldness I could muster, or any cowardice if it came to that, any giving up on heaven for the sake of dignity on earth? I had not seen a great deal accomplished in the name of dignity, ever.”
— I recently acquired a cloth bag that says, ‘hurts like heaven’, which I think delivers a similar message to Dillard’s. Turn everything that hurts and scares into your ticket to heaven, for the ticket is pricey.
Congratulations to those who ‘let it rip’ this year and good luck to those who are determined to do so for the next.
Beat Sheet: Screenplay Breakdown of Alejandro Inarritu’s Birdman
December 6, 2014 6:54 am
I’ve been wanting to apply the Snyder Beat Sheet to a movie for some time. ‘Birdman’ is a great one for the task, and a challenging one too. Let me know your thoughts at email@example.com
Caution: Please continue to read if you’ve already seen the movie!
Hero in meditation. His voice-over says, ‘How did we end up here? … We don’t belong in this shithole.’ Perfect opening for a character who will soon begin questioning his self-worth, the meaning of his existence and above all the reality of all that is. As he is levitated during meditation, we are led to think Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) may be talking about the notion that all that we see, feel and think are perceptions of a grand illusion (maya), and in fact ‘this’ is not our true nature – we do not belong ‘here’ in the world of maya.
Riggan is haunted by the superhero character that he played many years ago: Birdman. Birdman, the alter ego, tells Riggan that he will fail at his comeback in the theatre. He should give it up already and embrace his superhero persona instead. Riggan, either in reality or in his personal reality, does have supernatural abilities. We are left to doubt until the very end whether he is an extraordinary person doubting his extraordinariness, or a perfectly ordinary person doubting his ordinariness. Is he a potential winner or a loser?
Riggan at a rehearsal for his comeback play. We observe him publicly exercise his superpowers, about which we remain doubtful. We meet his alter-ego, producer, daughter, fellow actors, lover, ex-wife. We get the sense that things are going badly for this guy. When all he wants is to prove that he is something, he grows more and more fearful of firmly establishing himself as a nothing. He is desperate for acknowledgment and success, but also strangely aware that ‘this’ is not ‘it’.
The catalyst is an amalgam of Riggan’s external and internal conflicts. On the one hand there is the question of whether he will really take on this crazy challenge of making it in the theatre and whether the incredible risk he is taking will pay off. On the other, his internal conflict is with his own ego. Will he be able to overcome it, silence it, stop battling with it? He also has a hyper-conflict: Are his superpowers real? Is he and everybody and everything else real? All of this is set up from the first instant we see and hear Riggan. His catalyst lies within himself. But if I had to pick a scene that is cataclysmic for his journey, I would pick the scene where he supernaturally ‘kills’ his co-star and takes charge of his destiny by changing it for the better against all odds.
The hiring of Mike (Edward Norton) and the previews that follow. The one-on-one rehearsal with Mike reveals Riggan’s weakness and self-doubt. In the first preview Mike messes up the whole show by insulting Riggan and the audience in the middle of the run. Riggan has to decide whether he should keep Mike, who will clearly be instrumental to his success, despite the risk of damaging his ego along the way. Right after the preview, Riggan and Mike have a conversation where we get to know who they are and what they are in this for. The stakes are high for Riggan: this play is a make-or-break for his career and seemingly for his entire existence.
Break into Two
This is a tough one, because almost the entire film seems to be a debate about all the explicit and implicit questions raised at Fade in. A prominent Break, if not the Act I Break, is the scene where Riggan’s daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), pummels Riggan’s ego by telling him he is unimportant and he better get used to it. Riggan is clearly devastated. But after she leaves, despite his apparent ‘loser’ outlook, he uses his magic to give the ashtray a gentle spin, as if to say, ‘Yes, I know, but there is something else…’ Meaningfully, in the scene that follows, his stage character says, ‘I spend every fucking minute praying to be someone else. Someone I’m not. … I don’t exist. I’m not even here. I don’t exist. None of this matters,’ and then shoots himself. The Riggan-Sam scene tips Riggan over to the throes of an even grander battle with himself.
The only love story credit would be traditionally given to Mike and Sam’s developing romance. But I feel Riggan’s relationship with his daughter has the only B story quality. At the Act I Break scene I mentioned above, Riggan is sympathetic toward Sam for the first time, and their relationship flourishes throughout the rest of the film. Sam will also become the first to find out about Riggan’s ‘true’ identity. Theirs is the true romance of the film.
Fun and Games
All the previews up to the first time Riggan reads a review of the play.
Riggan receives a review where Mike comes across as the star of the play and he, ‘the aging action hero who grasps for his youth.’ Riggan experiences a false defeat. He is once again pushed to the edge to choose between his ego and his dignity (which also stems from ego – there is no way out of the ego trap!).
Bad Guys Close in
Ego wins! Mike stays on as a threat, but he is no more of a threat to Riggan than his play’s failure. Riggan continues to take more risks for his ultimate goal of making his great comeback. But the pressure builds. Mike becomes more and more of a problem on so many levels, including as a love interest to Sam. Birdman insults and dares Riggan more than ever and drives him to the edge of sanity.
All is Lost
Tabitha, the critic who will give the life-or-death verdict on Riggan’s play, makes her decision before she even sees it: ‘I’m going to kill your play.’
Dark Night of the Soul
After hearing his fate Riggan truly gives up the fight for the first time. The whole world is against him. There is no chance that he will survive this and he has not a drop of hope left. He wakes up on a bench and peels his face off a garbage bag, appearing more like a homeless drunk than a superhero. Birdman brings in the big guns to take advantage of Riggan’s weakest moment and lure him back to his side. Riggan falls for it. But, does he fall into Birdman’s trap, or is he building up the courage to step into his power. He ends up on top of a building, seemingly about to commit suicide. When a neighbor helps Riggan step down from the edge and asks ‘Do you know where to go?’ Riggan responds, ‘Yes. I know where to go,’ and jumps off the rooftop without hesitation. Riggan soars high over Manhattan, just like Birdman.
Break into Three
Riggan is a superhero now, and he knows exactly what to do. He has the solution but we don’t yet know what it is. He plans his ‘real’ suicide at the end of his opening show. Why? Because he knows he will fail, so he might as well make the most majestic exit he can? Or, now that he discovered his superpowers, he simply knows nothing can beat him, whatever happens will only serve him? We don’t know why exactly, but we know something is up when he prepares to pull the trigger.
Third act is set in the hospital room where Riggan lies with a bandage on his face that is practically the same as the Birdman mask. He not only survived, but also gained enormous sympathy from audiences and family alike, picked up great reviews and got himself a brand new nose!
Riggan takes flight! From the opening image of a levitating man in meditation to a closing image of a man in flight from the POV of his daughter… What did Riggan figure out: that he doesn’t belong in this shithole. And he proved it.
Stories for Life
November 5, 2014 7:15 am
Richard Hamilton wrote about the effects of live storytelling in his article, ‘Tell me a story’ for Aeon.co. I quote here a few lines from his findings about our connection to stories and storytelling: ‘A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens,’ wrote the American novelist Reynolds Price in the essay ‘A Single Meaning’ (1978). ‘[It is] second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter. Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence.’
We all know how much we love and need stories. And to hear that it is our second basic need after food, before love and shelter, is mindboggling. But, it is especially the last sentence of this little quote that urged me to write: the suggestion that there can be almost no human life where there is no more story to be heard. I agree with this statement, but I would like to take it a little further and discuss the nature of silence.
There is a section in the book, ‘Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists’, where John Cage conducts an interesting research on sound and the Zen idea of ‘nothingness’. Since Cage works with sound, he wants to experience ‘soundlessness’. He goes to Harvard University, where there is an anechoic chamber, a soundproof box that offers ‘the most perfect silence on earth’. As he sits in the womb-like chamber, something unexpected happens: he hears ‘a dull roar and a high whine!’ Where there is no sound from no-thing, Cage hears earfuls of sound. When he speaks to the engineer about what he heard, the engineer says: ‘The high whine is the firing of his neurons. The dull roar is the blood flowing through Cage’s veins.’
Even where there is total silence, by our sheer existence we create sound. And that sound, if stripped from every other sound, is the story of our body: the sound of our biology sustaining itself, narrating its story.
‘Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence.’ If silence is an absence of story, Cage’s experiment is proof that even in silence, as long as a human being exists, there will never be silence, and therefore never an absence of stories. Thus, millions can survive in silence too, as they will always have the story of their existence to listen to.
Stories are the lifeblood of our mental and emotional life. Richard Hamilton’s article differentiates live storytelling from other means of perceiving stories. As a lover of movies, the article raised my curiosity about perceiving stories through watching/listening to the teller of the story, as opposed to passive absorption in somebody else’s product of imagination projected onto a screen. Could live storytelling be a more direct and simple way of making sense of life through stories?
My yogi husband doesn’t enjoy movies like I do. But he can sit or move in meditation for hours in the dark of the night, when he is exposed to as little sound or image as possible. Whether we are in our chamber of silence, or exposed to a multitude of tales made up of infinite sounds and images, we are secretly striving to hear the narrative of our lives. May we find it, whichever way we choose.
‘The Freud Scenario’ – Act I Break
October 20, 2014 9:02 pm
I recently discovered a very good example for an Act I Break that is worth sharing and discussing in a little detail. In the 50s, US director John Huston asked French writer-philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre to write a screenplay about the founding father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. Sartre’s first draft didn’t fully make it to the big screen, but the screenplay is published for us to enjoy as a piece of literature. ‘The Freud Scenario’ not only tells us an account of the birth of psychoanalysis, but also gives us a very relatable portrait of a human being mastering his own demons before bringing forth his contribution to the science of the psyche.
Sartre’s 380-something-page screenplay is by no means traditional in terms of its generosity with time and space for the characters and events to take shape. But, it certainly hits the right structural notes, which are delivered with meticulous care.
Following an unusually spread-out sequence where ‘The Call to Adventure’ (coined by Joseph Campbell) is established and an agonizing debate over taking on or refusing the challenge has ensued, Freud is faced with the antagonist of the story: Meynert. Meynert, the man who initially condemned Freud for following his inner voice, now prompts him to go ahead with his original plan: treating hysterical patients using hypnosis. Finally at page 138, off Freud goes on his quest to develop the ‘talking cure’.
The scene with Meynert is meaningful to me for several reasons. For one, I like the idea of a hero who gets a good kick in the butt from none other than the antagonist before going on his journey. The fact that the hero is dependent on antagonistic authority/father figures to make his decisions is important for establishing the hero’s pathology, the root from which his desires and ambitions stem in the first place and the reason for his eventual success. Who could be a better person to show one’s weakness -and his hidden strength- if not the bad guy! It is Meynert who obstructs Freud’s path, but it is also him who gives Freud the blessing to get back on it.
The scene also clarifies the goal of the hero: to know oneself. Meynert himself has failed in his lifetime to fight his own demons and is now dying in devastating ignorance. Thus this scene also shows us very clearly what would happen to the hero if he fails in his quest. The stakes are high: a life lived or a life lost.
Another interesting way in which the writer uses this scene is that the Shadow archetype turns into a Mentor archetype and sets up the new ‘bad guy’, which in this case is neurosis – the disease of the mind and the spirit. Meynert, as the Mentor, gives us the rules of the game: Freud has to delve into the muddy corners of his psyche and make a pact with the Devil if he wants to unearth and demolish what keeps him in darkness. This organic shift in archetype energies brings fresh momentum to Act II.
The importance of achieving the hero’s goal, the hero’s and the enemy’s characteristics that will make it a tough ride, the intensity of experience along the path to success and what it would mean to lose this battle are all settled in one stroke. Now we are ready to experience the Journey; we are aware of the stakes; we know the enemy and we have expectations about how the hero must now act. That’s what I call a good Act I Break.
Excerpt from ‘The Freud Scenario’:
Freud pulls his chair up close to Meynert.
MEYNERT Are you still searching for male hysterical patients?
At this reminder of the 1887 lecture and their quarrel, Freud frowns and shakes his head almost imperceptibly as a sign of denial. Meynert understands the sign.
MEYNERT Pity. I could have presented you with a fine specimen.
Freud dumbfounded and mistrustful, guesses beforehand the reply to the question he puts.
Meynert has recovered his bitter, ironical smile. He says with simplicity and almost with pride:
Freud does not reply. He looks at Meynert: on his face astonishment is mingled with a sudden, deep understanding – and, less clearly, with a certain satisfaction.
Meynert continues, with a kind of somber pride:
MEYNERT I knew the symptoms before Charcot; I learned about them the hard way – I had them all.
Still more proudly:
MEYNERT All. No one knew anything.
Freud speaks harshly: his resentment has not abated.
FREUD When you threw me out of your laboratory, you already knew that?
MEYNERT I’d known it for twenty years.
FREUD You called me a buffoon and a charlatan.
MEYNERT You know the story of Noah: a son mustn’t see his father’s nakedness.
He looks at him without tenderness and without regret. In a factual tone of voice:
MEYNERT You were my spiritual son.
Freud, in the same tone of voice, with an additional touch of sadness:
FREUD Yes. And you cursed me. You ruined my life. I was a scientist, not a doctor. Medicine disgusts me: I don’t like torturing people on the pretext that they’re ill. (A pause.) For six years I’ve carried out no research. I torture neurotic people I can’t cure.
Meynert laughs feebly.
MEYNERT Electrotherapy, baths and massage?
FREUD Massage, baths, electrotherapy.
Meynert laughs a little louder.
MEYNERT One might just as well put a poultice on a wooden leg.
Harshly, with sparkling eyes:
MEYNERT It’s quite useless.
FREUD I know. And yet I prescribe nothing else.
Meynert, with a still more ironical smile:
MEYNERT At all events, it can’t do any harm.
FREUD Not even that. (A pause.) Who would you call the charlatan? The young man who sincerely believed in the virtues of hypnotism or the man of today, who prescribes a treatment he doesn’t believe in?
Meynert has closed his eyes and does not reply. Freud looks at him with growing anxiety. After a moment, he rises noiselessly to his feet and is about to go over to the patient. Meynert hears him and speaks without opening his eyes.
MEYNERT Sit down. I’m not asleep, I’m gathering my thoughts. I’m very weak. I have to talk to you. Don’t interrupt me.
He speaks at first with his eyes closed; in a moment, he will open them.
MEYNERT Sufferers from neurosis form a fraternity. They rarely know each other, yet they recognize each other. At first sight. Just one rule: silence. Normal people, that’s who our enemies are. I’ve kept the secret… All my life – even from myself; I’ve refused to know myself; I’ve refused to know myself.
He opens his eyes and looks intently at Freud.
MEYNERT You belong to the fraternity, Freud. Or very nearly… I hated you, because you wanted to betray… I was wrong. (A pause.) My life has been nothing but play-acting. I’ve wasted my time hiding the truth. I was keeping quiet. Result: I’m dying with pride, but in ignorance.
MEYNERT A disciple of knowledge must know, mustn’t he? I don’t know who I am. It’s not I who has lived my life: it’s an Other.
He once more closes his eyes. Freud seems overwhelmed. He leans forward and timidly lays his hand upon the sick man’s pale hand, which is lying on the arm of his chair. Meynert reopens his eyes. He looks exhausted. But for the first time since the beginning of the film, he looks at Freud almost with affection. In a quicker, weaker voice:
MEYNERT Break the silence. Betray us. Find the secret. Expose it to the light of day, even if it means revealing your own. It’s necessary to dig deep down. Into the mud.
At these last words, Freud withdraws his hand and recoils somewhat.
MEYNERT Didn’t you know that?
FREUD (slowly) Into the mud? Yes, I know.
MEYNERT Does that frighten you?
FREUD Yes. I… I’m not an angel.
MEYNERT So much the better. Angels don’t understand men.
Freud’s face has altered: he is still somber but his eyes are shining.
FREUD What if I weren’t capable…
MEYNERT If you’re not, no one will be.
A silence. He raises his voice slightly.
MEYNERT For six years you’ve been champing at the bit… Now charge: it’s in your character. Retreat before nothing. If your strength fails you, make a pact with the Devil.
More quietly, but with burning conviction:
MEYNERT It would be splendid to risk Hell so that everyone could live under the light of the Heaven.
He has half raised himself, his pillow slips down behind him. Freud rises and repositions the pillow. Meynert lets himself sink back.
MEYNERT For my part, I lost – through lack of courage. Your turn to play. Farewell.
He is breathing through his mouth. Very slight rattle. Weary, painful expression. His eyes are open and staring. He repeats very softly, as if to himself:
Freud looks at him for a moment, impassively. Meynert no longer seems aware of his presence. Freud stretches out his hand timidly. Touches the dying man’s pale hand with his fingertips, turns on his heel and leaves noiselessly.
Farewell to Two Beautiful Souls
August 16, 2014 8:51 am
Following Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tragic death earlier this year, Robin Williams’s sudden departure this week caused great grief among his millions of fans around the world. Both Hoffman and Williams were immensely talented actors who suffered from depression and addiction. They eventually surrendered to the destructive forces that had apparently tainted their much celebrated lives.
I was much too sad to write about Philip Seymour Hoffman. When I watched ‘The Master’ I had sensed that beneath his enormous talent a dark sorrow was brewing. When I found out about his death, I had the sensation that he slipped through my fingers, as if I was holding him just above the water by having acknowledged his pain.
Robin Williams’s apparent suicide is perceived as another thing entirely. There seems to be a lot of negativity around Williams’s passing, simply because he intended to take his own life. The media is ruminating about all that was going for him and how selfish it was of him to take his own life. What is it about people that makes them think the more you have the better your life must be? Isn’t it much more likely to suffocate because of all that you do have?
Depression must be even darker and uglier if the sufferer is perceived as undeserving of that suffering. Imagine suffering from a disease that you don’t even have a right to have. Imagine everyone around you dismissing your debilitating state of mind. Imagine you can’t even be at home with your own pain.
I don’t see much difference in how death came to both these actors. More important question is, surely, why they welcomed it in the way that they did. Both Hoffman and Williams’s passing should bring into question why such fortunate and supremely gifted people lived so close to the edge. Why were they so unhappy? And why do we react with bitterness and criticism to such loss?
Robin Williams was a beautiful soul, as was Philip Seymour Hoffman. While I don’t mean to compare their lives and deaths, I salute them both together as two heroes who lost the same battle. I don’t know the particulars of their depression, but I appreciate their suffering. Their gifts are irreplaceable. Our loss is great.