Saturday, December 24, 2011

FSFF's Favourite Online Film Studies Resources in 2011 | FSFF - Catherine Grant

Not since its December 2008 blog entry A-Z of Favourite Scholarly Film and Moving Image Blogs has the otherwise intrepid Film Studies For Free ventured into the rather crowded, online territory of end-of-year lists.

But, as it signs off on its seasonal break until the first few days of 2012, FSFF thought the time was right for a listing of links to its favourite, openly accessible, online Film Studies resources in 2011.

Thanks so much to all who worked hard to bring you these openly accessible treasures in the first place. And thanks also, dear readers, for being there to appreciate them.

FSFF very much looks forward to seeing you again in the New Year.
  1. Top seven film and moving image studies history resources online in 2011: 
    1. The Colonial Film Project archive plus two freely accessible chapters by those involved in the project: Lee Grieveson and Colin MacCabe (eds), Empire and Film (BFI/Palgrave, 2011) and 32 sample pages; and Lee Grieveson and Colin MacCabe (eds), Film and the End of Empire (BFI/Palgrave, 2011) and 25 sample pages
    2. Media History Digital Library
    3. The Turconi Project
    4. EU Screen
    5. European Film Gateway
    6. The Permanent Seminar on Histories of Film Theories
    7. The Kracauer Lectures website

  2. Top five, most consistently brilliant Film Studies bloggers:
    1. David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson for Observations on Film Art
    2. Luke McKernan for The Bioscope (also see McKernan's two new ScoopIt! projects: The Bioscope and Screen Research)
    3. Roland-François Lack for The Cine-TouristThe Daily Map and The BlowUp Moment (also see The Autopsies Group website) and also on Twitter
    4. Dan North for Spectacular Attractions (also see The Cinema of Puppetry) and also on Twitter
    5. Tie between Michael J. Anderson and Lisa K. Broad for Tativille and Ten Best Films; and  Omar Ahmed for Ellipsis

  3. Best new Film Studies blog: Katherine Groo's Half/Films

  4. Best 'media studies approaches to film and moving image studies' blog - tie between:
    1. Just TV by Jason Mittell (also on Twitter)
    2. Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style by Anne Helen Petersen (also on Twitter)
    3. The Chutry Experiment by Chuck Tryon (also on Twitter)
    4. The Negarponti Files by Negar Mottahedeh (also on Twitter and Facebook)

  5. Most consistently original, Film and Moving Image Studies writer active online - a tie between: 
    1. Adrian Martin (e.g. see all the links here)
    2. Nicholas Rombes (e.g. see here and here)
    3. Amanda Ann Klein (also see here)
    4. David Bordwell
    5. Kristin Thompson (also see here and here)
    6. Jeffrey Sconce (also see here)

  6. Best Film Studies informed, commercial film criticism website: Alternate Takes

  7. Best new online film journal in 2011 - a tie between:
    1. LOLA edited by Adrian Martin and Girish Shambu
    2. ALPHAVILLE edited by Laura Rascaroli and others at the University of Cork
    3. JOAN'S DIGEST edited by Miriam Bale
  8. Best recently established online academic Film Studies journal: MOVIE: A Journal of Film Criticism

  9. Top twelve established, online, (mostly) English language, Film Studies journals:
    1. Screening the Past
    2. Film-Philosophy
    3. SCOPE
    4. Jump Cut
    5. Senses of Cinema
    7. Participations
    8. Bright Lights Film Journal
    10. Offscreen
    11. La Furia Umana 
    12. World Picture Journal
    13. For links to one hundred more journals (including some brilliant, primarily non-English language journals, like Transit: Cine..., see here)

  10. Most generous, Open Access Film Studies author: Thomas Elsaesser for the below freely accessible e-books and for the hundreds of further resources linked to from his website:
    1. Elsaesser, Thomas (ed), A Second Life : German Cinema's First Decades (Amsterdam University Press, 1996)
    2. Elsaesser, Thomas (ed), Harun Farocki: Working on the Sight-Lines (Amsterdam University Press, 2004)
    3. Elsaesser, Thomas,  Jan Simons, Lucette Bronk (eds), Writing for the Medium: Television in transition (Amsterdam University Press, 2004)
    4. Elsaesser, Thomas, European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood (Amsterdam University Press, 2005)
    5. Elsaesser, Thomas, Fassbinder's Germany: History, Identity, Subject (Amsterdam University Press, 1996)
    6. Elsaesser, Thomas, Noel King, Alexander Horwath (eds), The Last Great American Picture Show: New Hollywood Cinema in the 1970s (Amsterdam University Press, 2004)

  11. Best online cinephile news and criticism site: MUBI Notebook (thanks so much to David Hudson and Daniel Kasman for their brilliant work)

  12. Best cinephile salon site - a tie between:
    1. Dave Kehr's place
    2. Girish Shambu's place

  13. Best seven multimedia/multiplatform/multichannel-style film and moving image studies websites:
    1. FlowTV
    2. In Media Res 
    3. Moving Image Source 
    4. Screen Machine 
    5. Screen Culture
    6. Antenna: Responses to Media and Culture 
    7. Critical Studies in Television

  14. Most impactful online Film Studies work in 2011 - a tie between:
    1. Tim Smith's work on how movie viewers watch, showcased here as well as on his blog Continuity Boy and his research site.
    2. Matthias Stork's video essays on Chaos Cinema (see FSFF's original post on this)
    3. Aitor Gametxo's video essay: Variation: THE SUNBEAM, David W. Griffith, 1912
    4. Steven Shaviro's work on Post-Cinematic Affect: see here for lots of links

  15. FSFF's favourite Film Studies academic links on Twitter: @filmdrblog (also see the Film Doctor's actual blog)

  16. FSFF's favourite non-academic, film studies-informed, online film critics - a tie between:
    1. Srikanth Srinivasan (also on Twitter)
    2. Matt Zoller Seitz (also on Twitter
    3. Kevin B Lee (also on Twitter here and here)
    4. Jim Emerson (also on Twitter)
    5. Jonathan Rosenbaum (also on Twitter)
    6. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky (also on Twitter)
    7. Farran Smith Nehme (also on Twitter)
    8. Marilyn Ferdinand and Roderick Heath (also on Twitter here and here) and see Rod's blog
    9. Anne Billson (also writing for the Guardian and on Twitter)
    10. David Cairns (also on Twitter)

  17. FSFF's ten favourite FSFF blogposts (and blogpost clusters) in 2011
    1. On 'Affect' and 'Emotion' in Film and Media Studies
    2. Double Vision: Links in Memory of Raúl Ruiz, a Filmmaking Legend and ¡Viva Raúl Ruiz!
    3. V.F. Perkins on FILM AS FILM and More Victor Perkins Video Interviews Online from Saarbruecken 
    4. The Future of Cinema: Discussion with David Bordwell, Simon Field, Andréa Picard and Alan Franey 
    5. The Tree of Links: Terrence Malick Studies 
    6. Ingmar Bergman Studies 
    7. Viewing Modes and Mise en Scene: 50 YEARS ON by Christian Keathley and The Obscurity of the Obvious: On the Films of Otto Preminger 
    8. On Figural Analysis in Film Studies 
    9. Liquid Atmospherics: On the cinema of Wong Kar-wai 
    10. Its own video essay posts: Framing Incandescence: Elizabeth Taylor in JANE EYRE (1944); Studies of Film Noirishness, with Love; Links on videographical film criticism, editing, 'intensified continuity', 'chaos cinema', 'hapticity' and (post) cinematic affect; and Audiovisualcy: Videographic Film Studies 

  18. FSFF's most read post in 2011 by some distance was "An incarnation of the modern": In Memory of Miriam Bratu Hansen, 1949-2011

  19. Most popular resource at FSFF: Open Access Film E-books List

  20. Best search engine for Open Access Film Studies (and other Arts and Humanities resources): JURN (thanks, as ever, to the indefatigable David Haden)

FSFF's Favourite Online Film Studies Resources in 2011 | FSFF - Catherine Grant

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Roger Corman remains unflinching in the face of an evolving industry | Kristopher Tapley

"I think to succeed in this world, you have to take chances. I believe the finest films being done today are done by the original, innovative filmmakers who have the courage to take a chance and to gamble. So I say to you, keep gambling, keep taking chances."

Roger Corman remains unflinching in the face of an evolving industry | - Kristopher Tapley

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Writer’s Style: An Introduction | My PDF Scripts

Howdy. Sheridan here. I've decided to take a crack at (what I hope will be) a new and continuing column of the site. No promises on how often I'll actually get around to a new post, but hopefully I'll be able to con some guests into helping me out by spotlighting their own screenwriting favorites.

So what's this all about, then?

Well, I've often thought about and, especially, as of late, have become increasingly interested in writing style.

As I pore through the many screenplays that I currently have – organizing, reading, and reading, and reading, etc. – it's hard not to realize the effect a writer's style can have on a screenplay and the film overall. I know some of you are uttering the words duh! at this very moment, but honestly, how many people, especially we burgeoning lot, are actually aware of this fact?

The more I read the more I begin to realize that some writers have an indisputable style that is all their own. A style so eccentric, so different, that without ever seeing a cover page, you can instinctively and intrinsically just know who wrote it. Just take a look at action lines by Wes Anderson or dialogue by John Sayles or the dark undertones of Paul Schrader or the balls out craziness of Tim Talbott or the fourth-wall-breaking of Shane Black or the heartfelt absurd themes of Charlie Kaufman.

If any one thing is quickly apparent when studying the craft of screenwriting, it's that good screenwriters do, indeed, have their own style. They may tackle myriad genres or a host of varying stories, but one thing is always overtly certain: it is their story.

And it makes sense: if directors can be known for their visual style, well, then, why not writers for their written style? Sure, most of the writers I mentioned earlier also wields a director credit or two, but that's the point: at some point their voice became so uniquely their own that no one else could tell their story the way they could. And as an aspiring writer/director myself, this is a lesson I've taken immense pleasure in discovering and learning.

It's exactly like that lesson you've read in every screenwriting how-to book currently gathering dust on your bookshelf: give me the same thing, only different. But here's the bit that I think has been routinely left out: give me the same thing, only different, and make it your own. The goal isn't simply to parrot what's come before and modernize it and/or give it a different twist. The goal is to tell me the story in your voice.

I can't tell you the number of screenplays that I've read that are absolutely, atrociously, make-me-wanna-take-hot-spoons-to-my-eyeballs boring. Why? Most aspiring screenwriters can grasp structure fairly quickly; to connect A to B to C isn't that difficult to comprehend, but what they seem to overlook is that they're supposed to be telling me a story.

No, I mean you are supposed to be telling me a story.


Yes, you.

Still not getting it?

If I were to walk into the room that you're currently in, take a seat with my cup of coffee, and say, "Okay, tell me your story." How long could you hold my attention?

One cup?

Two cups?

Four pots?

It's no different on the page. When you write, I want you to tell me the story. What I don't want is the same cookie-cutter b******t everyone else is throwing at me.

No, g*******t, I want you to rip your f*****g larynx out of your throat and staple that f****r to the page and sign the byline in blood.

Because I want YOU to tell me the story. I want to hear your voice when I read it. I want the story to be so uniquely your own, and I want it to command my attention so ragingly, that it makes me weep when I have to read the words FADE OUT.

So, as a good introduction to Writer's Style, I suggest you download The Robotard 8000′s Balls Out and, for better or worse, I dare you to argue that – from the very first line of the script – it's not uniquely their own.

And while you're reading that, I'll be working on a write-up of the writer whose style I've been wanting to spotlight for quite a while now: that of Walter Hill.

Writer's Style: An Introduction | My PDF Scripts

Sunday, November 6, 2011

I Hate Dialogue | ScriptShadow

"You think you can write dialogue like me?  YOU think you can write dialogue like ME??" 

I hope you don't think you're going to learn a lot about dialogue in this article. Dialogue is a constant battle for me. It's something I don't totally understand. The reason for this is that dialogue is the one aspect of screenwriting you can't truly "break down." You can't divide dialogue into three acts. You can't add a character arc to dialogue. You can't give dialogue backstory. You simply write down the voices in your head. And while some people have interesting voices to draw from, others don't.

The funny thing is, dialogue looks so damn easy from afar! In fact, it's why most people get into screenwriting. They think, "I can write better dialogue than THAT!" So they dive in, write up 120 usually autobiographical pages (likely the crazy adventures of them and their friends – "Our life is just like a movie!!!"), show it to their inner circle, get a bunch of polite but suspiciously distant "I liked its" punctuated by one brave soul who's willing to say what everybody's thinking: "I don't get it. It's just a bunch of people talking."

Ohhhh. You learn your first lesson. Dialogue actually has to have a POINT! It actually has to move the story forward. Why didn't somebody tell me? Quentin Tarantino has ten minute scenes about Royals with Cheese. Why can't I do that? Because you're not Quentin Tarantino. You're you. And "you" has to learn that within every scene of dialogue, there must be a purpose. In fact, you should be doing SEVERAL things with your dialogue at once. And that's where we learn just how difficult dialogue is. Sure, if all you had to do was have characters talk, dialogue would be easy. Instead, there are five main things that need to be accomplished whenever characters speak. Let's take a look at them.

MOVE THE STORY FORWARD – Every scene should have a point. It should be moving the plot along in some way. If a problem is introduced into your story and a scene goes by without the characters attempting to address that problem, guess what? You're not moving your story forward. So when your characters are talking, make sure the majority of what they say centers around pushing their own goals and needs along. You do that, you'll be pushing the story forward. If no one wants anything? If characters just talk about life and stuff? Your dialogue isn't doing its job.

REVEAL CHARACTER – You want to use your dialogue to tell us more about your characters. Screenplays are short. They're not like TV shows where you have hundreds of hours to delve into a character's life. Therefore you have to sneak character development in wherever you can. Dialogue certainly isn't the only way to do this, but it's one way. If a character says he just spent three hours at the gym, that tells us he's a workout freak. If a character always talks about his ex-girlfriend, that tells us he's not over his ex-girlfriend. One of the big ways to reveal character through dialogue is to identify your character's fatal flaw and keep hitting on it throughout the script. Look at Rocky. Here's a character who doesn't fully believe in himself. So we get a scene where he expresses fear at the idea of fighting Apollo. We get a scene where he nervously flirts with Adrian. We get a scene where Mick tells him he's a bum. The dialogue is constantly reminding us that Rocky doesn't believe in himself yet, which is a key part of his character.

EXPOSITION – Exposition is the worst. It's hard enough to make dialogue sound good on its own. Now we have to waste it on logistical story elements every 8 minutes? It's like trying to pick up a girl and then her disapproving friend walks up. The words just don't come out as easily. This is why the trick with exposition is to simplify what you need to say and convey it in as few words as possible. Exposition is always going to trip up your dialogue a LITTLE bit. But at least this way you minimize the damage.

KEEP IT UNDER 2 PAGES – To me, this is one of the hardest things about dialogue. If we had 5-6 pages for every conversation, dialogue would be as easy as accusing Justin Bieber of fathering your baby (baby baby ohhhhh...). But the average film scene is 2 minutes long. 2 MINUTES! That's only 2 pages for your characters to say everything they gotta say. This is why new writers hear this critique so much: "Cut cut cut cut cut." You gotta cut everything down to its bare essence because you don't have time in your scene to include all the bullshit. Sure, some scenes are longer than others.  A five minute dialogue scene is not unheard of.  But it's still rare.  Which means learning how to scrunch all your dialogue into a very small space. 

ENTERTAIN – This is the scariest part of all when it comes to dialogue. After you do all that stuff – the story, the exposition, the characters, the minimizing – the dialogue still has to entertain us! It still has to sound like two people talking in real life, even though in real life, every one of these conversations would probably go on for more than an hour! That means going back, smoothing it all out, editing it, rearranging it, adding a joke or two, and continuously asking yourself, "Does this sound like two people really talking?" Until the answer is "Yes," keep rewriting it.

Now that we know the stipulations working against us for writing brilliant dialogue, let's talk about the tools you can use to fight these inhibitors. I don't have all the answers. I fight against dialogue every day. That said, I know these five tools help improve dialogue.


This was mentioned in the comments the other day and it's a great tip – especially for beginners. Come into your scene as late as possible and leave your scene as early as possible. In other words, only give us the meat of the scene. Not the fat. Say your characters are meeting at a coffee shop. Tom is getting the coffee while Sarah waits at the table. Tom says, "What do you want again!?" "A double mocha decaf!" "Large?!" "Uhh, yeah, large!" Tom waits, grabs the coffees, walks over, sits down, a moment for the two to get settled, they ease into a conversation…and then SOMEWHERE around here they actually start talking about the story. UHHHHHHH…NO! Why the hell would you include all that irrelevant nonsense?? Start with them ALREADY AT THE TABLE WITH THEIR COFFEES. Catch them five minutes into their conversation, right when they're talking about the important stuff. That's what I mean by "Come in late." Then, as soon as you've met the point of your scene, get out. Once Obi-Wan and Luke agree on a transport fee with Han in the Cantina scene, they don't sit around for another five minutes chatting about the weather on Kashyyyk. We cut away. Now obviously there's some flexibility in this rule. Sometimes you want William Wallace to take his time riding through the village, building up the suspense, before he BEATS DOWN the English. But for the most part, coming in late and getting out early will keep your dialogue focused and on point. You won't write a bunch of boring shit if you only include the meat.


The best dialogue scenes are set up ahead of time by carefully building up your character's goals, secrets, motivations, etc. You then place them in a scene (preferably with something at stake), and watch the dialogue write itself. For example, Joe and Jane talking about their friend's wedding is boring. But if we find out beforehand that Jane plans to kill Joe in this scene, talking about that wedding becomes a lot more interesting. Paul meeting his potential father-in-law is mildly entertaining. But if Paul's girlfriend tells him beforehand that she'll never marry someone her father doesn't approve of, now Paul meeting his father-in-law is SUPER entertaining. Watching Mick beg Rocky to be his coach is a strong scene no matter where it is in the film. But the reason it's a classic is because we watched Mick kick Rock out of his gym and tell him he didn't believe in him earlier. So if a scene isn't working, go back in your script and see if you can set it up better. Once you find the right situation, the dialogue will write itself.


This is one of the best ways to improve your dialogue. Give one character a secret. Give both characters a secret. Or tell the audience something the characters don't know. If you do any of these things, you'll create subtext, unspoken words beneath the text. If we know that Frank plans to break up with JoJo, then anything they talk about before the break-up will have subtext. If Julie secretly likes Tom and the two accidentally get stuck in the bathroom at a party, anything they talk about (Math class, bird watching, dinosaurs) will have subtext. There are other ways to achieve subtext (which you guys are free to highlight in the comments section) but this approach tends to create the most powerful dialogue situations.


When we first write dialogue for a scene, we often think literally. If a character asks, "Are you thirsty?" We might have the other character respond, "Yes. Could you get me some water?" That's a very literal on-the-nose response. Most people talk in and around what they're trying to say instead of saying exactly what they're thinking. They use slang, sarcasm, manipulation, indifference, caution – any number of things – to keep the conversation off-center. Rarely does dialogue go down a straight path. So let's ask that question again. "Are you thirsty?" A more interesting response might be, "No, my lips always dry up and bleed like this." Your characters are not robots. Nobody speaks literally. So make sure you're mucking up the dialogue and that no one is speaking on-the-nose.


Writers hate doing character biographies because it takes so much damn time, but holy hell does it work. Why? Because the more you know about your character, the more specific you can make their dialogue. Bad dialogue is usually general – vague, non-specific. Rick comes home late one night and spots his roommate, Jed, on the couch. "What's up man?" "Not much. How'd your day go?" "Shitty. I'm exhausted." This is the most general boring conversation EVER. Let's say I did some character biographies ahead of time though and found out that Rick is an aspiring actor and Jed is a compulsive gambler. Let's try this again. (Rick stumbles in) "I've got two words: Fuck Stanislofsky." "I need to borrow money." Rick gives Jed a look. Jed: "What?? How was I supposed to know Vick would tear his MCL." "I'm not giving you any more money." "Come on. The Raiders are a sure thing." It ain't going to win any Academy awards but it's certainly better than "How'd your day go?" Why? Because it's SPECIFIC. It reveals character. It has the people in the scene saying things only they would say. Do your homework on your characters. I promise it will pay off.

And that's all I got my friends. I know it's not the end all article on dialogue but the truth is I don't know everything about dialogue. Which is why I'm turning to you. Please. I want to learn. Tell me how YOU approach this aspect of screenwriting. What tips and tricks help you? This is the least defined area of screenwriting. Let's try and crack it.
I Hate Dialogue | ScriptShadow

Saturday, November 5, 2011

You are my density | David Bordwell

DB here:

The mobster Joseph Rico is in protective custody; tomorrow he testifies against the big boss. But Rico fears reprisals, so he decides to escape. While a sleepy cop guards him in the washroom, he bends over the sink and rinses his face.

Turning so suddenly that water spatters on the mirror, he grabs the cop in an armlock and slams his head against the sink, just below the frameline.


Rico turns to the window to make his escape.

What interests me in this passage from The Enforcer (1951) is not just what happens in the mirror but also what happens on it. While Rico belabors the cop's head, we're given a chance to notice the splash of water that hit the mirror when Rico whirled to the attack. While the action is moving forward, we're reminded of what had triggered it.

We get a sort of parallel reminder in the next scene, when we see the wounded cop again. He's sporting a big bruise on his left temple, a souvenir of Rico's assault.

Pfui. Details, you might say. Or you might (correctly) instance this as another case of Charles Barr's enlightening notion of gradation of emphasis. But it's worth getting a little more specific, because even this simple scene (by non-auteur director Bretaigne Windust) offers us something to think about, and something for today's filmmakers to try.

Most films today don't fully exploit the visual dimension of cinema. True, we have dazzling CGI and fancy camera moves. But when it comes to less flamboyant scenes, directors have limited their options by relying too much on stand-and-deliver and walk-and-talk. There are other aspects of visual storytelling that today's filmmakers neglect. One aspect is the possibility of gracefully moving actors around the set in a sustained fixed shot. A specific tactic I've mentioned before is the Cross, and another involves ways to get people into a room. The option I'm going to sermonize about today is what I'll call scenic density.

By scenic density I mean an approach to staging, shooting, and cutting in which selected details or areas change their status in the course of the action. I don't count the bustle of background business, all that street traffic that is so much pictorial excelsior in our movies. Nor do I refer to stuffing the setting with desk and kitchen flotsam, allusive pop-culture posters, and the other distinctive "assets" that will be exploited when the film's world gets transposed to a videogame. I mean something more expressive and intriguing.


Using it up

Go back to the Enforcer scene. The shot's composition creates a delimited zone of action. The guard cop is framed tightly in the mirror. When the fight breaks out, it's initially framed in that mirror–a narrowing of visual importance. Moreover, the shot is designed to highlight the spatter on the mirror. It's fairly prominent, stuck near the center and, providentially, in the spot that the cop's head initially occupied. The lighting picks out the drips, and in a shot where the figures move in and out of frame, there isn't an equally constant center of interest. We're probably concentrating on Rico's punishing of the cop, but the dribbles of water remain prominent enough to claim our interest, especially when Rico passes out of frame.

So here's my first condition for scenic density: the shot keeps several items of dramatic significance salient in the composition.

This technical choice asks the filmmaker to think of the frame as a field of dynamic masses and forces. Such an idea was part of the aesthetic of "advanced" European and Japanese silent cinema of the 1920s. Many directors explored this dynamism, often aided by low angles and wide-angle lenses. Here are examples from Eisenstein's Old and New and Murnau's Tartuffe.


This pictorial density became especially prominent in American cinema during the 1940s, when low angles, wide-angle lenses, and locations and smaller sets encouraged cinematographers to pack their compositions snugly, as in this shot from Panic in the Streets.

Boris Kaufman, cinematographer for Jean Vigo and Elia Kazan, summed up the principle:

The space within the frame should be entirely used in the composition.

Since cinema is a time-bound art, however, the salient elements in the shot could and should change. But if the frame space is wholly "used," what room is there for change? The only options are to have the using-up elements shift position, or to reveal that the frame isn't used up.

Vivid instances, also from the 1940s, can be seen in Anthony Mann's work, both with and without John Alton. Generally, Mann used the new fashion for depth composition, especially big foreground elements, to heighten scenes of violence. Physical action becomes more aggressive if people rush the camera and halt in tight close-up, especially because wide-angle lenses tend to accelerate movement to the foreground. Mann thrusts violence abruptly to the camera with an almost comic-book effect, as when the club owner is shot in Railroaded, or a man is flung to the floor in Raw Deal.


Even when this in-your-face tactic isn't employed, the Mann films find ingenious ways to develop what seem to be completely locked depth compositions. In Border Incident, Ulrich confronts the Mexican government agent Pablo, disguised as a Bracero. A looming depth shot is followed by a reverse shot displaying a compact composition.


Is the frame space fully used? The second shot above is opened up when Ulrich leans forward to sock Pablo, creating a vacant spot on the far right for Pablo to fall into. The shot is emptied and re-filled, dense once more.



Memories, memories

Aha, you may be saying. Density just refers to squinchy, fussy shots from an era that favored cheap flash. No. The Enforcer shot isn't all that cramped. Of course the blank, unchanging walls serve to highlight the mirror-reflected fight and the water dribbling down the glass, but you can imagine how much more jammed and skewed Mann's treatment of Rico's escape would be. As for the flashier depth, I just needed some clear-cut cases of density, examples in which details and spatial zones become starkly salient. Now I want to suggest that scenic density can be achieved in something more spacious, even monumental. That has to do with time and memory.

Part of what gives the Enforcer shot its interest is the superimposition of two moments of action in a single space: Rico's diversionary turn from the washstand, recorded in the splash he made on the mirror, and the struggle taking place a few seconds later. A further trace of that struggle and that splash is visible in the bruise on the cop's head in the next scene.

That dripping spatter can stand in for the second quality of spatial density I want to highlight: Its capacity to coax us to recall earlier action in the locale. Characters leave their marks and spoors in the space, and those get activated as memories. Unlike the slick surfaces of today's settings, in classic films the settings can bear the impress of human transit, leading us to recall bits of behavior and emotional states. Let me illustrate from Lang's Hangmen Also Die (1943).

It's Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, and Gestapo Inspector Ritter is questioning Mrs. Dvorak, the vegetable seller who could identify the woman who misled the officers pursuing an assassin. Torture, or at least what we think of as torture, hasn't started. She is simply standing in front of his desk as he brandishes his riding crop in the manner of a good movie Nazi.

When Mrs. Dvorak denies knowing the woman, Ritter taps the back-rest of the chair. It simply falls off, and we realize it's not fastened to the chair.

Ritter says, "Pick it up again." Now we realize that intimidation has  been applied for some while; Ritter has made the woman stoop to replace the back-rest many times. She does so again as the camera tracks back. This is nicely detailed too. She starts to pick it up by bending over, finds the effort too painful, and then goes to her knees to pick it up–just as Ritter taps his riding crop against her hand, a teacher gently chiding a slow pupil.


As Mrs. Dvorak rises to put the piece back in place, the camera pans slightly right to pick up the woman bringing in a tray. Happily Ritter sniffs the coffee jug and resumes questioning the old woman.


Cut to a shot of her by the chair. "Let's start from the beginning," says Ritter, offscreen. Unthinkingly Mrs Dvorak starts to rest her hand on the loose slat, forgetting that the top slat is unattached. It's a natural response. She's been standing there for a long time and would like something to rest on, and the chair is temptingly close. (Presumably, that's its purpose, to taunt the unwary prisoner forced to stand a long time.) Remembering just in time, she yanks her hand away. If she knocks the back-rest off, she'll just have to pick it up again.


Cut to Ritter. "Don't be nervous, Mrs. Dvorak. I'm prepared to—"

Cut to Mrs. Dvorak. As he continues, "–devote to you all of tonight," she forgets herself again and relaxes her hand, this time on the back-rest. It falls off, making her start.


She looks up as Ritter says, offscreen: "Even longer if necessary." Cut to Ritter, gesturing with a piece of sausage and saying, coaxingly, "Well?"


Slowly she goes to her knees again as the camera tracks in on her.

Back to Ritter: "That's the girl." Back to her, rising in pain to replace the back-rest.


The scene concludes with Ritter reminding Mrs. Dvorak that she's in Gestapo headquarters. She acknowledges that she doesn't expect to leave without giving information. He starts his questioning all over again as the scene fades out.

This quietly suspenseful scene establishes a bit of furniture as a key prop. Once the faulty back-rest is marked for our notice, we're expected to remember that it's a means of intimidation–something that Mrs. Dvorak, in her anxiety about refusing to aid the Nazis, twice forgets. Lang's shots, simple and uncrowded, makes the chair, like the spattered mirror in The Enforcer, preserve the trace of human activity. Yet it's more acutely integrated into the scene's drama than the mirror, and remembering how it was used earlier makes us wait tensely to see how it will be used again.


Long-term density

Several scenes later, the Nazis threaten to kill four hundred Czech hostages if the assassin isn't turned over to them. Mascha Novotny has set out for Gestapo headquarters to denounce the man she helped, but she changes her mind and decides not to betray her country. She will only plead for her father's life. Once more we're in Ritter's office.

Centered in the frame, standing out as a pale oblong against the grayer background, the fateful chair is made salient during Mascha's conversation with Gruber. I suspect there's a sort of spatial suspense here–will she move to the chair and dislodge the precarious piece of wood?–but more important, I think, is the fact that the chair ineluctably reminds us of Mrs. Dvorak and her quiet resistance to pressure.

Ritter leaves to consult his superiors. When he comes back, a new composition keeps the chair prominent and lends a new centrality to the clock on Ritter's desk, surmounted by a snarling cat or something like it.  (It's visible in shadow in the earlier scene with Mrs. Dvorak.) But now the camera arcs to minimize the Dvorak chair and show the beast and Ritter targeting Mascha.


Soon enough, as if to make sure we remember, Mrs. Dvorak is brought back in, having undergone serious torture. The camera positions reactivate our memories of the earlier scene.


As she continues to lie to protect Mascha, Mrs. Dvorak never touches the chair. Although she has been tortured, she seems wearily defiant, as if her refusal to aid the Nazis has given her some strength: no need to lean on the chair now. As a final cue to our memories, Lang has Ritter play once more with his riding crop, letting its shadow fall on her heart.

The threat is clear: For lying, the old woman will pay with her life.

The chair reappears in a later scene, but I'd argue that then it serves more as a pointer to another prop. The resistance movement fights back by framing Czaka, a beer baron sympathetic to the Nazis, as the assassin. Lang could have explicitly recalled the questioning of Mrs. Dvorak by having Czaka lean on the slat and knock it off. Instead, the composition makes Ritter's clock more important than it was in earlier shots. As Czaka tries to defend himself, the framing blocks our view of the chair but emphasizes the snarling catlike creature on top of the clock. And the chair has shifted a little off and become a bit darker; it's no longer as salient.


This cluster of scenes from Hangmen Also Die illustrates how scenic density can add layers to a film. One scene recalls another not only by similarity of situation and locale but by tangible marks left on it by earlier action. Having seen Mrs. Dvorak subjected to Ritter's oily intimidation, we generally expect something like it to be applied to Anna. This conventional situation is given a rich, concrete presentation by the repeated camera positions and the simple chair that, unmoving, enters into the drama.

Of course as a Hollywood director, Lang was pressured to reuse sets and camera setups. That saved money and time. But he turned such repetitions to his advantage by letting certain objects come forward at crucial moments. They not only become part of the drama but prime us to remember them, and what they revealed, in ensuing scenes. And even though Lang never pursued the aggressive, packed deep-focus of other directors working in the 1940s, he shows how roomier, less pressurized compositions could still be charged with echoes of earlier bits of behavior.

Is this sort of visual-dramatic economy, calling on precise memories of concrete actions, lost in today's American cinema? I suspect it is.

In studying Hangmen Also Die, I was curious about a perennial problem. Was the byplay with the chair a Lang invention on the set, or was it some version of the script, or in the original story by Lang and Bertolt  Brecht?

The film didn't have a secret script, as the poster says, but the sources do remain a bit obscure. A draft of the original story signed by Lang and Brecht, in that order, exists. It indicates only that the greengrocer, called Frau Blaschke, is subjected to eight hours of "the usual Gestapo brutality" and refuses to identify the girl. There were other drafts of the screenplay, but I don't have access to them, if they exist, and standard sources on Brecht in Hollywood don't mention this scene's details.

Somewhere along the line, though, the chair-back business was concocted. I found the shooting script signed only by John Wexley (Brecht claimed that he was robbed of credit) and annotated in pencil, perhaps by Lang. That script indicates that Ritter's room contains "a vacant chair with its seat close against desk." and Mrs. Dvorak is standing beside it as the scene begins. Much of the dialogue is the same , with some slight changes notated in pencil, possibly by Lang. But the camera movements indicated are different from those in the final film, and more importantly so are the actions. After Mrs. Dvorak claims that she doesn't know the woman who helped the assassin, we read the following. I indicate pencil notations with {}.

In her fatigue, she places hand on back-rest of chair. But its dowels are loose and back-rest clatters to the floor.

RITTER (saccharine): Pick it up, Mrs. Dvorak.

CAMERA MOVES IN CLOSE as she obeys, stooping with painful fatigue–she has done this many times tonight.

RITTER: Now put it back in place, Mrs. Dvorak.

(She does so)

As Ritter questions her:

MED. SHOT – MRS. DVORAK. Without thinking, she is about to place hand again on loose back-rest–when she remembers and jerks back.

RITTER'S VOICE: Now don't be nervous, Mrs. Dvorak…I'm prepared to devote to you all of tonight–and even longer, if necessary.

Mrs. Dvorak, unconsciously reacting to this, once more rests hand on chair. {She jerks back but} The piece of wood clatters to the floor.

MED. SHOT – RITTER. Ritter waits patiently; when she doesn't move, inquires:

RITTER: Well…?

CAMERA PULLS BACK to INCLUDE Mrs. Dvorak, who stoops to repeat painful routine. Ritter smiles approvingly.

RITTER: That's the girl.

Nothing here is indicated about Ritter's riding crop, nor does he initially knock the back-rest off the chair. Mrs. Dvorak does it herself, accidentally. And the scripted line is "Pick it up, Mrs. Dvorak," not, as in the finished film, "Pick it up again, Mrs. Dvorak." The film version makes it clear that the byplay with the backrest is part of Ritter's softening-up technique, something indicated in the script but not spelled out.

The later scenes in the film show other differences, mostly additions of things not mentioned in the shooting script. For instance, the script doesn't mention the shadow of Ritter's riding-crop. But the excerpt  shows that the shooting script points toward some of the detailing we find in the finished film. It provides the sort of nudges that a director, especially one as oriented to gesture as Lang was, could elaborate on the set.

The Lang/ Brecht story has been published as "437!! Ein Seiselfilm," in The Brecht Yearbook vol. 28: Friends, Colleagues, Collaborators, ed. Stephen Brockmann (2003), 9-30. The passage I mention, kindly translated for me by Ben Brewster, is on p. 16. Broader background on Brecht's adventures in Hollywood can be found in James K. Lyon, Bertolt Brecht in America (Princeton University Press, 1980). Chapter 14 of Patrick McGilligan's Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast (St. Martin's, 1997) offers an account, mostly relying on Brecht's viewpoint, of the making of Hangmen Also Die. The shooting script is in the John Wexley collection of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research and the State Historical Society here in Madison. Thanks also to Marc Silberman, renowned Brecht expert, for advice.

You are my density | David Bordwell

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Similar But Different (Five Parts) | Scott Myers

'Similar But Different' (Part 1: Remakes)

Perhaps you are sick of me talking about how Hollywood approaches moves and TV with the business ethos of 'similar but different,' a subject I have explored here, here, here, and here among many other posts.

Hey, I am sympathetic to you. However since now more than ever Hollywood is relying on similar but different, I'm going to hammer on the subject for the next three days. More after the jump.

We start with this recent LAT article: "'Footloose:' The '80′s are dead. Long live the '80′s." Despite the inauspicious B.O. performances of Footloose, Fright Night, Conan, The A-Team and Arthur, Hollywood keeps dipping into the 80s well:

Seasons, like paychecks and Republican presidential front-runners, come and go. But some things remain constant. Like '80s remakes. And, specifically, their power to make us yawn.

[Last] weekend saw the moviegoing public shrug off two more retreads, a revival of a 1984 Kevin Bacon classic and a prequel of a 1982 John Carpenter cult hit. "Footloose," that Bacon revival, pulled in $16.1 million — not a terrible number, but considering how heavily the movie was marketed, not exactly auspicious, either. Results for "The Thing" looked more grisly — the movie eked out only $8.7 million.

The films join a long list of '80s reboots that have yielded lackluster results: "Fright Night," "Conan," "The A-Team," "Arthur."

So if 80s movie remakes may not be faring all that well at the box office, why does Hollywood keep going to that well? Safe to say the big reason is 'similar but different.' A remake is the perfect execution of that concept: It is the same movie, only done with a different cast and a revised script to reflect contemporary sensibilities and freshen up the story.

At the core of 'similar but different' is a belief: All stories have been told before. More from the LAT article:

In "Drive," the well-reviewed art-house piece that has established a loyal fan base, Nicolas Winding Refn channels the spirit of "Miami Vice" and other pastel-colored entertainment. Throwback action movies such as "The Expendables' and "Fast Five," meanwhile, have turned into the biggest hits of the last couple of years. "Footloose" may have struggled, but its spiritual descendants, the "Step Up" films, has blossomed into one of the hottest teen franchises of the last few years.

And this summer J.J Abrams looked to the movies of the 1980s, like "Stand by Me" and "The Goonies," in creating his coming-of-age adventure "Super 8." The film went on to become a huge global hit.

There are good reasons we're looking back to the movies of several decades ago: There were some storytelling values to that period, for one thing, and there are only have so many stories to tell.

Even a contemporary director such as Jason Reitman, one of the more original-minded filmmakers out there, said he felt the ghosts of decades past when he gets behind the camera. "In a strange way, I always feel like I'm doing a remake," he told 24 Frames in an interview last week. "I mean, 'Thank You for Smoking' was 'Jerry Maguire' if Jerry sold cigarettes."

So even if the B.O. results aren't overwhelming, there is a default attitude deeply entrenched in Hollywood that will persist in remaking 80s movies… then over the next few years 90s movies… and so on.

That attitude? Similar but different.

You don't have to like it. You do have to understand it.

[Another reason remakes are so popular, as manager-producer Gavin Polone notes here, is that movies are "the greatest hard asset they [studios] possess," so a remake not only generates its own revenues through box office receipts and ancillary streams, it can also increase the value of the original film, a case of double-dipping.]

'Similar But Different' (Part 2: Retro)

With several remakes currently in movie theaters (e.g., The Thing, Footloose, The Three Musketeers) and a confluence of interesting articles of late, I decided it would be valuable to revisit a familiar subject that has a definite impact on a screenwriter's life: Hollywood's default business approach of 'similar but different.' Yesterday I spotlighted this this 24 Frames [LAT] article by Steve Zeitchik that delved into the whole 80s remake phenomenon. We explored two ideas:

* On the business side, remakes are popular in Hollywood because they are the perfect version of 'similar but different,' perhaps the safest way to create a product that carries with it strong consumer pre-awareness.

* On the filmmaking side, remakes are an acknowledgment that all stories have been told before, so why not retell the good ones.

Today I want to highlight a recent article by LAT's columnist Patrick Goldstein. The title suggests one thing — "Is Hollywood's mania for remakes spinning out of control?" However if we dig into the piece, we confront a powerful dynamic that seems to be at work in contemporary culture which would also help to explain the enduring power of remakes.

Some excerpts from Goldstein's article:

"Everything old is new again," the expression goes, but in pop culture these days, it seems more fitting to say everything new is old again. This weekend is an apt example: Paramount Pictures opened "Footloose," a remake of the cheesy 1984 dance movie, and it's battling for the box-office crown against "The Thing," a new version of the 1982 John Carpenter horror film from Universal Studios.

I guess it was inevitable that we'd have a weekend where both of the big new releases were remakes. (Next week brings another: "The Three Musketeers.") Whether you're writing about Hollywood, pop music, TV or theater, the prefix "re" gets a serious workout on your keypad, since every other new project seems to be a remake, reboot, revival, reissue, relaunch, reunion, restaging, reimagining or reenactment.

Goldstein had a sit-down with Matthijs Van Heijningen, the 43-year-old director of "The Thing."

Van Heijningen spent his teen years gorging himself on Kafka novels and groundbreaking American movies, notably "The Godfather" series, "Blade Runner," "The Exorcist" and "Jaws." At 17, he said, he sneaked into Carpenter's "The Thing" (itself a remake) and was impressed, being a Kafka fan, by what he calls "its nihilism and sense of doom."

The movie resonated with him so much that when Van Heijningen was looking to make his feature debut here, he found himself eager to revisit the film. The whole mania for remakes tends to revolve around commercial motives — it's usually easier to sell something that is familiar to audiences — so it's hardly a surprise to discover that there was an element of careerism in Van Heijningen's decision to pursue the film.

"It is slightly strategical to do something that's familiar," he told me. "But I thought I could give the movie some of my own flavor as a filmmaker. It's a lot like making a commercial. There's already a story, created to sell a product. So as a director, you just have to find a way to express your own ideas inside of that framework."


Van Heijningen has a shrewd grasp of showbiz history. In the 1970s, with the studio system in a state of collapse, a generation of New Hollywood filmmakers seized power, inspiring a decade of auteur-driven artistry. But by the 1990s, Hollywood was once again firmly in the grasp of media behemoths. Intent on bringing order and sustainability to their often-chaotic studio subsidiaries, they began systematically developing the kind of film franchises and remakes that were easily marketable and offered predictable profit potential.

Here we see the merging of the two points we explored yesterday: Hollywood's 'similar but different' credo, filmmakers attempting to find an aesthetic justification to retell a story that's already been told. But later in the article, Goldstein cites another dynamic which suggests that the real energy behind remakes may not be studios or filmmakers — but consumers themselves:

Why are we so culturally backward-looking today, especially when our technology — our iPhones, iPads and computer graphics — leaps forward at such a dizzying pace? If anyone has a good theory about this deceleration of pop culture, it's Simon Reynolds, whose recent book, "Retromania," is about how pop music has gone from being an exploratory art to a form of cultural archaeology.

He argues that retro has become a structural feature of pop culture, acting as an inevitable down phase to an earlier manic burst of creativity. Though he's speaking in terms of music, many critics might apply that logic to film or TV as well. "Like a boom-time economy, the more fertile and dynamic a genre is, the more it sets itself up for the musical-cultural equivalent of recession: retro," Reynolds writes. "The sheer creativity of its surge years (the sixties, seventies and parts of the eighties) inevitably made it increasingly irresistible to be re-creative."

But today's retromania is also tied to the way young consumers experience pop culture. When I was a kid, I wanted nothing to do with my parents' music or movies. I needed to carve out my own cultural identity. Today's kids, thanks to the easy access to Netflix and YouTube, make far less of a distinction between what is old and what is new. With a century of culture just a click away on any computer, young consumers have become the ultimate archivists, just as willing to embrace familiarity as innovation.

What if remakes are primarily a response to a retro consciousness permeating contemporary culture? "Young consumers have become the ultimate archivists, just as willing to embrace familiarity as innovation."

What if old is the 'new' new?

Given the business, aesthetic and consumer state of affairs that suggest 'similar but different' is going nowhere soon, what is a screenwriter to do? It's easy for a professional screenwriter when asked by an aspiring writer, "What should I write," to go to the default answer: "Be yourself, write something original." Frankly I wince whenever I hear that, not at the spirit of the answer, but at the absolute lack of help that advice offers as it stands in complete opposition to nearly everything the Hollywood movie business is about.

The reality is this. A screenwriter has two choices: To play the game or not play the game. That is the subject of Part 3 of this series.

'Similar But Different' (Part 3: Playing the game)

It may not be pretty, but screenwriters — professional and aspiring — have to deal with it: Hollywood's default business model of 'similar but different.'

* Movie studios want projects that are similar to movies that have been hits. Per their logic, this is a safe way to approach script acquisition and development — If something was successful before, it can be again — and increase the odds the 'new' project will make a profit — Marketing efforts will benefit from pre-awareness among consumers.

* Movie studios want projects that are different enough from movies that have been hits. When they toss out a phrase like a "fresh take," they don't mean wholly original, rather they want a story that offers a spin on something that has been produced before.

I'm not saying this is a good state of affairs. Nor am I saying it's necessarily a bad state of affairs. I'm just saying it is the state of affairs.

In the first two posts in this series — here and here — we looked at this phenomenon from a studio, filmmaker and consumer perspective, each a contributing factor to the preponderance of remakes, prequels, sequels, and heavily similar movies.

Today we bring it all down to the screenwriter. And the simple fact is you have a choice:

You can play the game. Or not play the game.

You may look at the status quo of the Hollywood movie business and decide you simply can not work within the 'similar but different' framework. You want to write original stories, cutting edge scripts, movies not just filmed product.

If this is who you are and what you are about, two things:

First you absolutely have the right to write whatever stories you want. Indeed I'm sure all of us who visit this blog applaud your courage and creativity. God knows we need visionaries and unique voices creating distinctive films.

Second if you go this route, eventually Hollywood may seek you out if you create a successful niche for yourself, but on the whole that approach is not the studios' first resort. Rather they want screenwriters and filmmakers who work within the confines of 'similar but different.' In other words, screenwriters who can play the game.

What is the game?

It's coming up with similar but different stories.

It's providing your take on writing assignments that is — shock! — similar but different.

It's trafficking daily in a world of ideas and story concepts that fit comfortably within the broad perimeters of stories that have been written and produced before.

You must understand that almost every single professional screenwriter including A-listers, make their living writing these type of projects.

For example, Sony asks Aaron Sorkin to write a Steve Jobs movie which you can be sure the studio is thinking is similar but different to another Sorkin film, The Social Network.

Warner Bros. hires Ben Affleck to write a movie version of "The Stand" that is a remake of a TV mini-series.

Name any A-list screenwriter or filmmaker and I guarantee you they have worked on at least one and more likely many more similar but different projects..

Here's the thing: There is no inherent reason why a similar but different movie has to be bad. Indeed they can be great. Look at some of this year's quality hit movies: Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Bridesmaids, The Help, Rango, Contagion, Moneyball.

Why do some of these similar but different films succeed aesthetically while others just feel like knock-offs? I would suggest that it's because the filmmakers looked below the surface of remake and retro sensibilities to some familiar, powerful dynamics that exist in all stories which we can mine to craft compelling narratives: archetypes.

'Similar But Different' (Part 4: Archetypes)

In the first three parts of this series — here, here, and here — we have been exploring Hollywood's default business strategy of 'similar but different' pretty much on their side of the playing field.

Now it's time to move the ball to our (i.e., writer's) side.

As we have noted, simply because a movie is 'similar but different' doesn't mean it will necessarily be a bad one. Indeed there are remakes that are arguably better than the originals, one of which we will consider below.

Thus if we acknowledge it's possible to create 'similar but different' stories that are good, even great, it behooves us a writers to figure out how to do that.

For purposes of this discussion, I will suggest two narrative elements we can use to write entertaining and compelling 'similar but different' stories, thus allowing us to survive, even thrive as we play the screenwriting game in Hollywood. Today we look at one of those elements: Archetypes.

Now I suppose only I could attempt to pull a discussion like this back to Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, but honestly doesn't 'similar but different' apply to the very idea that all stories share universal elements? Whether we talk about The Hero's Journey, metamorphosis, and other character or narrative archetypes, aren't we essentially looking at variations on familiar themes?

The difference between the Hollywood studio version of 'similar but different,' furiously digging through development slates for something that hearkens back to a successful previous movie, and a Campbell-Jung approach tapping into character and narrative archetypes, patterns that have evolved over thousands of years and exist both in our consciousness and unconsciousness, is a matter of depth. And therein lies the secret: By using archetypes to dig deeper into our stories, we go beyond a shallow, surface level approach to writing, which is prone to generate nothing more than 'knock-offs,' to find and create stories that resonate with script readers and movie viewers on multiple levels of entertainment, meaning, and emotion.

Archetypes have power because they carry with them associations we have made through the tens of thousands of stories we have read, heard, or listened to in our lifetimes.

Archetypes are true because if used well, they reflect genuine and real aspects of the human condition and the universe around us.

Archetypes are entertaining because we recognize them consciously and intuitively, both as familiar forms and when crafted against type to surprise us as fresh variations.

In other words, understanding and being attuned to archetypes as we craft our stories, even 'similar but different' ones, allows us to find deeper drama, humor, thrills, action, suspense and all the rest of the psychological reactions we hope to evoke in our characters and plots.

A great example of this is the Coen brothers' remake of True Grit. As noted previously, a remake is Hollywood's perfect version of a 'similar but different' story: It is the same movie, only done with a different cast and a revised script to reflect contemporary sensibilities and freshen up the narrative. Any filmmaker who sets out to do a unique and compelling retelling of a previously told story has a huge challenge. In my view, one of the major reasons the Coens succeeded with True Grit is because of their understanding and use of archetypes. Whether they were conscious about these elements as they wrote the script or not doesn't matter. The fact is their cinematic version of True Grit is infused with powerful character and narrative archetypes.

I have already done an analysis of the story's archetypes here, so I will only summarize my thoughts [I encourage you to go back and read my OP].

In the movie, we see the five primary character archetypes:

Protagonist: Mattie Ross

Nemesis: Tom Chaney

Attractor: LaBouef

Mentor: Rooster Cogburn

Trickster: Mattie's father

Each character provides a specific function to the story and in aggregate create a rich tableau of personalities and interrelationships.

Moreover there are several narrative archetypes at work as well:

* The Hero's Journey: Mattie leaves her Old World — the family farm — traveling to the New World — the wilderness — in order to pursue the goal of killing her father's murderer.

* Metamorphosis: Along the way Mattie confronts both her adult self and juvenile self, going through a transformation of her psyche.

* Romance: In LaBouef she finds an idealized version of a potential lover.

* Surrogate father: In Cogburn, she finds a more powerful and compatible version of a father figure.

* Good versus evil: She is an innocent who is exposed to the harsh realities of a dark and dangerous New World.

* Stranger in a strange land: She is a fish-out-of-water.

* Underdog: The odds are stacked against her.

I'm sure you can find more.

These character and narrative archetypes connect with us psychologically in a variety of ways and in so doing create a depth of experience that transforms this remake of True Grit into a powerful 'new' version of the story.

So how to survive as screenwriters while playing the 'similar but different' game in Hollywood? One set of tools we have is archetypes. Use them well and we can play their game while playing our game… and everybody wins.

In order to use archetypes well, we don't come at them randomly, but must see how they service a story's central organizing principle — its psychological journey.

'Similar But Different' (Part 5: Psychological Journey)

In the first three parts of this series — here, here, and here — we explored Hollywood's default business strategy of 'similar but different' from the vantage point of movie studios. In the fourth post here, we shifted the perspective to the writer's side of things by considering powerful tools available to writers — archetypes — how they can be used to transform a 'similar but different' story into its own unique and compelling narrative.

But that's only part of the story. Character archetypes and narrative archetypes do not exist in a vacuum. Properly understood, they serve a story's central organizing principle: its psychological journey.

In any script, there are the events that transpire in the External World, the domain of what the reader can see (Action) and hear (Dialogue). I call this the Plotline.

There are also a related movements that occur in the Internal World, the domain of what the reader can sense (Intention) and interpret (Subtext). I call this the Themeline.

The Plotline and Themeline comprise the two realms of the Screenplay Universe.

Throughout the course of a story, events in the External World impact characters. They process and assimilate what happens which causes a change in their attitude in the Internal World. In turn that shift in perspective gets reflected in how they act back in the External World.

So throughout a story, there is this recurring dynamic — action, reaction, action, reaction — that plays out like a dance between Plotline and Themeline.

The result of that is the Psychological Journey. A character begins the story in one Psyche State and over time through a series of actions and reactions ends up in quite another Psyche State.

[Almost all movies feature a Protagonist going through some sort of metamorphosis].

To the degree we as writers create a compelling psychological journey [or set of psychological journeys] in a story, the more likely we are to entice the reader into our story universe. Furthermore a 'similar but different' story can evolve into a compelling experience for a reader. In other words, the specifics of a character's psychological journey can transform a familiar narrative into a unique one.

Yesterday we looked at the Coen brothers' remake True Grit to explore that story's use of character and narrative archetypes. Today let's examine another remake — the most obvious example of the 'similar but different' mentality — with the script we have been analyzing this week: The Thing.

In the 1951 original (The Thing From Another World), the story's psychological journey was focused on the group of men and women banding together to successfully defeat an alien force. The psychological journey of the remake is substantially different:

* Unlike the original, the remake's take on the Thing is that the alien has the capability to enter into a human's body and transform itself into an imitative version of its host. This sets into motion the primary component of the story's psychological journey for its characters: Paranoia. Who has been 'infected'? Who is for us? Who is against us? Have I been infected? Is my or their behavior a sign of the infection?

* Instead of a more typical Hero's Journey as reflected in the 1951 version of the movie, where the crew defeats the Thing, the remake is a much darker affair: alien kills humans, humans kill humans, humans kill alien. Eventually as witness in the story's denouement, what is left is two human beings [MacReady and Childs] playing a game of chess, awaiting their eventual death either due to Antarctica's unrelenting winter or the emergence of the alien presence in one or both of the characters.

In effect, every character in The Thing plays a Trickster — at points they are allies, at other points enemies — until eventually their real nature is revealed.

In terms of narrative archetypes — the tribe versus outsider, underdog, Hero's Journey, metamorphosis [with an alien twist] — each of these dynamics serve the story's psychological journey, the devastating impact of paranoia and inevitable decline into violence. In other words the remake of The Thing is a transformed movie experience precisely because of its radically different psychological journey.

To sum up our own journey through this series of posits this week, while we may be inclined to look at Hollywood's fixation on 'similar but different' movies as a negative, I would encourage us to keep in mind movies like True Grit and The Thing, remakes which use elements — character archetypes, narrative archetypes, psychological journey — that demonstrate how writers have the opportunity with any story to transform that which is familiar into that which is unique.

As writers, we have the tools to do this. All that's required is an understanding of those tools, careful use of them, creativity, and the passion to create distinctive stories.

Similar But Different | Scott Myers