Wednesday, December 17, 2014

New Podcast!

Hi guys, long time no see.  New content still isn’t ready, but I guest-hosted once again on The Narrative Breakdown with James Monohan and Cheryl Klein.  This time we’re discussing unreliable narrators in film and prose. Alas, I sound a little frazzled in this one (It was the end of a long day!) but James and Cheryl carry my weight ably, so it’s well-worth a listen!

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Straying From the Party Line: Saying What They Wouldn't Say in Do the Right Thing

One last look at Do the Right Thing
So I’ve had a lot of praise for Do the Right Thing, both for the rules it exemplifies and the rules it breaks, but before I move on I should point out the one record-scratch moment that always stops the movie dead for me, if only for a second.

As I said last time, I have no problem whatsoever with the “unrealistic” racism montage, which clearly takes place in those characters’ heads, but we transition into that scene from a seemingly objective scene between Mookie and Pino that always annoys me because it breaks a rule that it shouldn’t break (and doesn’t need to break.)

After getting called a nigger one too many times by Pino, Mookie calls him aside for a talk. Right there, it feels a little phony that Pino would agree to this talk, but I’ll go along with it. The bigger problem is in the dialogue:
  • Mookie: Can I talk to you for a second?
  • Pino: What?
  • Mookie: Pino, Who’s your favorite basketball player?
  • Pino: Magic Johnson.
  • Mookie: Who’s your favorite movie star?
  • Pino: Eddie Murphy.
  • Mookie: Who’s your favorite rock star?
  • [Pino hesitates]
  • Mookie: Prince. You’re a Prince freak.
  • Pino: Boss. Bruce.
  • Mookie: Prince.
  • Pino: Bruuucce.
  • Mookie: Pino, all you talk about is nigger this and nigger that and your favorite people are so-called niggers.
  • Pino: It’s different. Magic, Eddie, Prince, they’re not niggers. I mean, they’re not black. I mean ... let me explain myself. They’re not really black. I mean, they’re black, but they’re not *really* black. They’re more than black. It's different.
This strikes me as totally phony. Yes, Lee eventually lets Pino try to back out of the trap by substituting Springsteen, but he never would have blundered that far in. Tricks and traps are great, but they can’t be this obvious. We’re always on the look-out and avoiding them, jumping in with versions of “I see where you’re going with this...”

I talked last time about Lee’s published journal of the writing of the movie, and the brilliant tricks he uses to transfer that feeling of stream-of-consciousness brainstorming to the screen, but this can also be a problem, as this scene makes clear. Sure enough, in the journal, you can see him arrive at the idea for this scene and jot it down in real time, but in this case, the idea became overly didactic onscreen. Lee-as-writer is dumbing-down the character of Pino in order to make the point he wants to make.
Lee surely ignored the character of Pino when he said to his creator “I wouldn’t say this.” Of course, actor Jon Turturro also could have made the same protestation to Lee, and Lee probably would have listened: both the book and the DVD fearutes make it clear that Aiello kept standing up for his character Sal and asking for dialogue tweaks, some of which Lee conceded and some he didn’t, and they both agreed that the final movie benefited as a result . But Aiello was a veteran actor and Turturro was just starting out, so he was less likely to push back, and this scene suffered as a result, allowing Pino to become a straw man.

That’s frustrating, because this scene could have vastly improved by a small tweak. Here’s my humble rewrite:
  • Mookie: Hey Pino, Who's your favorite basketball player?
  • Pino hesitates before answering, suspecting a trap, but Mookie pounces on the hesitation
  • Mookie: I’ll tell you: Magic Johnson. Who’s your favorite movie star? Eddie Murphy. Who’s your favorite rock star? Prince.
  • Pino (jumps in, unconvincingly): No, Bruce! Bruuucce.
  • Mookie (scoffs): All you talk about is nigger this and nigger that and your favorite people are so-called niggers.
  • Pino: Fuck that.  They’re not niggers.  You can tell just by looking at them.
  • Mookie laughs in genuine amusement.
Mookie’s point is made (and Lee’s), and Pino is impeached, but he doesn’t collapse like a house of straw in order to make that happen: He goes down swinging.

Just let each character make his own point, rather than tricking some other character into making it for him. That’s one trap that never really works off-screen, so it shouldn’t work onscreen either.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Rulebook Casefile: The Tricky Tone of Do the Right Thing

So we’ve talked about the omniscient POV in Do the Right Thing, wherein the camera keeps jumping away from Mookie to give us a more ominous view of the block’s events that he can’t see. But this movie maintains a very tricky mix of objective and subjective points of view. On the one hand, it intentionally denies us the ability to deeply bond with any one character’s POV, but on the other hand, it literally allows us to step into the POV of several characters in a way that almost no other movie does.

If this movie occasionally has “camera-as-hero”, it also has “hero-as-camera.” I’ve already linked to this excellent post about the movie from Matthew Dessem at “The Criterion Contraption”, but let me borrow his nice demonstration of this effect:




So the camera is pivoting our POV until we literally step into Buggin’s head-space. Indeed, this movie is all about head-space. As Dessem goes on to explain, this retraining of our eye prepares us for the remarkable montage in the middle where a series of block residents abruptly hurl racial epithets at us. Are these residents really saying these things out loud? Have they ever said these things out loud? Probably not. We’re just leaping into the unrestrained id that’s simmering inside their heads.

Ultimately, this movie takes place in Spike Lee’s head-space: it’s his impressionistic collage of thoughts about New York in the summer, and at times it feels more like a journal than a story: it’s not just the laundry lists of epithets, it’s the long roll-call of R&B acts, the montages of various ways of dealing with the heat, etc. Indeed, Lee did keep a free-ranging journal as he carried the movie from conception to debut, then published it as a book, and it’s great reading.

Needless to say, the stream-of-consciousness tone he creates is hard to pull off, but Lee succeeds by using brilliant tricks like the one above that whip us back and forth between objectivity and subjectivity. That’s one reason I compared this before to avant-garde docs like Man with a Movie Camera and Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. We’re not always jumping from plot-point to plot-point, we’re sometimes just jumping from thought to thought.

So for screenwriters, I have bad news: this movie’s unique tone is sold to the audience using tricks that are only available to writer-directors, and would be hard to sell on the page if someone else was directing. This movie is visionary in a literal sense: Lee is using brilliant camera innovations to literally pivot us into the head of each character until their vision briefly becomes our own ...Hey, I think I just I just figured out why he says “A Spike Lee Joint”!

One last post on this movie coming up next week...

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Let Your Characters Re-Label Themselves

Let’s start by showing another post from the always-wonderful Humans of New York:
The takeaway is this: people like to re-label themselves. You see your characters as types, but they see themselves as individuals. This can especially be a problem in a movie like Do the Right Thing, which is all about types, as in “these are the types of people you see on an average New York street on an average summer day.” That’s a fine way to write. It’s okay for you to see them as types, as long as you allow them to reject those labels in the dialogue.

On the excellent Criterion Collection DVD, there’s lots of video of writer/director Spike Lee’s extensive rehearsal/workshop process and you can see him adjust the script to address the concerns of the actors, who were all invited to personalize their roles.

These leads to a wonderfully ironic moment, when Lee is rehearsing the first boycott scene with actors Danny Aiello (Sal) and Giancarlo Esposito (Buggin’ Out). Lee notices that, instead of saying “Only Italian-Americans on the wall”, Aiello has changed it to “Only American-Italians on the wall.” Spike instantly sees that this is better, and points out to Esposito that his mocking response should also change to mirror Aiello: “Well, I don’t seen any ‘American-Italians’ eating here!”

As Esposito is making the change in his script, Aiello explains that that’s the way he says it, because he visited Italy and decided that he was more proud of being American than Italian. At this point, Esposito gingerly points out that he himself is in fact, unlike Aiello, Italian-born. Aiello is of course totally embarrassed, but Esposito chuckles and says it’s no big deal.

Let your characters re-label themselves. Let them describe themselves in unique ways, so that their language will come alive. Let almost everything they say be specific to them and their particular worldview. Give them a chance to punch through the boxes you put them in.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Rulebook Casefile: Ironic Sequence of Events in Do the Right Thing

So we’ve established that Do the Right Thing has a very unique structure: Like most stories, it is about a large problem, but instead of watching a hero solve that problem, we’re watching the crisis slowly build, spotting a progression of factors that no one character can see.

Even so, only on subsequent viewings do we realize that almost every scene has contributed to the final crisis, often in very ironic ways.  Here, as I see it, are all the contributing factors, and where they come in the timeline:

  1. 9:50 The heat (which causes Sal to say “I’m going to kill someone today” at the beginning)
  2. 18:43 Buggin’ Out clearly has a history of free-floating agitation (see his nickname)
  3. 18:43 Buggin’ Out feels that Sal has been cheap with the amount of cheese on his pizza.  Sal doesn’t give an inch.
  4. 18:43 Sal contemptuously dismisses Buggin’s request to put African American pictures on the wall.
  5. 18:43 Sal has a bat under the counter and in the Wall of Fame scene we see that he’s quick to take it out.
  6. 21:43 Buggin’ tells Mookie to “Stay black.”
  7. 23:00 Da Mayor tells Mookie to “Do the right thing,” which seems to gnaw at him throughout the movie.
  8. 26:27 After turning off the fire hydrant (and seeing that the locals have humiliated an Italian-American driver) the Italian-American cop says he’ll bust heads if he has to come back.
  9. 33:20 We see in Raheem’s boombox duel with the Puerto Ricans that being forced to turn down your radio is a defeat, a personal humiliation, a threat to manhood
  10. 35:05 Buggin’ has his white Air Jordans run over by a white bicyclist, who bought a brownstone on the block.  And the guy is wearing a Larry Bird jersey (Lee hints in the commentary that the characters would have taken this jersey as a brazen display of white pride). 
  11. 39:19 Cops glare hatefully at the cornermen, who glare hatefully back.
  12. 39:19 The cornermen are increasingly angry that all of the businesses are owned by non-blacks.
  13. 51:35 Raheem gives Mookie his personal philosophy of love and hate, ending with “If I love you, I love you, but if I hate you…”
  14. 53:32 Sal doesn’t say please when he asks Raheem to turn down his radio the first time.
  15. 59:20 Pino yells at Smiley (just after Sal tells Pino that he won’t move) and the neighborhood overhears and heckles back. 
  16. 103:45 Everybody mocks Buggin’s attempts to recruit them, so he starts to calm down, and just starts to clean his Jordans, but Mookie says that his Jordons are dogged, causing Buggin’ to get angry all over again.
  17. 115:19 Mookie doesn’t like Sal’s friendship with Jade. 
  18. 127:30 Smiley is a mentally challenged person walking around unsupervised, and unlike most challenged people in movies, he isn’t serene all the time, so he’s agitating everyone. 
  19. 127:30 Buggin’ Out happens to run into Radio Raheem and their free-floating animostities combine on a semi-randomly selected target.  Then Smiley adds his anger to theirs.
  20. 129:08 Ahmad, Ella, Punchy and Cee convince Sal to re-open the pizzeria after it’s closed.
  21. 130:00 When Raheem, Buggin’, and Smiley show up to demand pictures on the wall, Sal doesn’t just yell about Raheem’s music, he calls it “jungle music.”  Obviously, this is followed by the big one, where Sal smashes Raheem’s radio with his bat.
  22. 133:46 When the resulting fight spills onto the sidewalk, a kid yells “Fight!”  and everybody comes running.
  23. 140:00 The crowd reveals that they are angry over previous police murders (the characters shout out the names of real-life police victims Eleanor Bumpers, Michael Stewart, et al.)
So that’s almost everything right?  Even the seemingly happy moments, like the fire hydrant scene, ironically contribute the final tragedy.  But in fact there’s another, much smaller list of elements that don’t contribute to the crisis:

  1. Everything with Senor Love Daddy, who is the ultimate in chill.
  2. Vito’s friendliness with Mookie doesn’t contribute one way or another.
  3. The anger of the teens at Da Mayor.
  4. The scene where Raheem’s batteries die and he gets more from the Korean grocers.
  5. Da Mayor rescues the kid from getting hit by an ice cream truck leads to peace between Da Mayor and Mother Sister.
  6. Everything with Tina and Hector (Mookie’s child) including the sex scene.
It’s crucial that these moments are included.  Unlike most stories, which assure us that we are following the linear progression of one problem, so that every scene “counts”, this sort of story must do the opposite: if we suspect that every element of this story is part on clockwork machine, the movie would feel grim and preachy: “Behold The Folly of Man!”

By interspersing the 23 elements that contribute with 6 that don’t, Lee keeps our eye off the ball, allowing us to just relax and enjoy this vibrant world, without having to feel that we’re riding a fixed escalator of racial tension.  We sense that something bad is coming, but we don’t know how or where it will arrive.  In fact, we cling to our hope that moderating influences like Da Mayor or Vito will ensure that things can’t get too bed.  This way, when everything finally goes to hell, it feels much more tragic that it would have Lee had merely set us up in order to knock us down. 


In the end, many elements contribute ironically, some elements contribute directly, and a few elements contribute not at all. That’s the most powerful way to tell this story, because that’s the way the world works.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

I, Too, Have Thoughts About Serial...

Some have requested that I share my thoughts on “Serial”, the smash-hit podcast that re-examines the conviction of a man named Adnan Syed for the murder of his ex-girlfriend when they were high school seniors, 15 years ago.  Well soon back to Do the Right Thing (which is now tragically timely)...
I’m obsessed with true-crime stories in general and false-conviction stories in particular, devouring every detail in cases such as the recent exoneration of Ricky Jackson. As a result, I’ve become convinced that false-convictions are far more common than most people think, and there are probably tens of thousands of wrongly-convicted people in America’s prisons, especially dark-skinned men.

That said, I’ve now listened to every second of “Serial”, and I’ve never seriously doubted for even one of those seconds that Adnan Syed is guilty.

Here’s the thing: This series is clearly not aimed at a typical true-crime audience, and it seems to me that its success is somewhat predicated on that unfamiliarity. The production values and philosophical tone peg this as true-crime for listeners who thought they were too sophisticated for true crime, which gives the show a fresh perspective and makes it a good listening experience, but also gives it license to be frustratingly naive. Koenig is a veteran reporter, and I’ve been a fan of her work for a long time, but it’s a little odd that she herself adopts such a credulous persona here. On one level, this is a smart narrative choice that makes her into a compelling hero, but it can lead to some eye-rolling.

The problem is that many of the supposedly exculpatory aspects that Koenig dwells upon would be seen as non-issues for an audience familiar with this sort of case. Here are four big ones:
  • #1: She keeps focusing on the fact that, while Syed had some motivation, he didn’t have enough. Wouldn’t he have just shrugged off the break-up?
...But who has a good motivation to kill an 18 year old honors student? Nobody. There’s no good reason to do it. But it keeps happening. Most not-for-profit murders don’t make good sense to anyone but the murderer. We have her diary saying that she doesn’t know why he can’t just get over the break-up. That’s more proof-of-motive than you usually find in such cases.
  • #2: She focuses on the fact that there are dozens of discrepancies in the various accounts, and the main witness’s story changes somewhat each he tells it.
...But this is always true. There has never once been a murder case without baffling discrepancies and inconsistencies in honest testimony. The only time this doesn’t happen is when everybody “gets their story straight” beforehand. What we call “memories” are a crude compromise between our actual sensory input at the time and the shifting self-narratives we craft in our heads. This whole series shows why it’s almost impossible to convict a millionaire (like O.J. or Robert Blake) of a crime, no matter how obvious their guilt is: because any case, even if it’s “open and shut”, starts to seem improbable if you have enough time and enough money to pick apart every inconsistency.
  • #3: She focuses on the fact that Syed is a nice, charming guy on the phone.
...Again, this is very common. Have you noticed that pre-recorded messages that keeps reminding her that she’s talking to an inmate? There’s a reason for that. Many, many prisoners are nice and charming, and you have to keep reminding yourself who you’re talking to. If he’s guilty of doing what Jay says he did (killing with several days’ premeditation), it would be weird if he didn’t have that affect: Listening to him talk, he sounds as if he could be a innocent, affable guy or, just as likely, he could be a charming psychopath. They’re hard to tell apart. Psychopaths, because they have no core self, are very good at becoming the charming person who you want them to be.
  • #4 She focuses on the fact that there’s little physical evidence.
...This is also very common. For the most part, cases with physical evidence don’t go to trial. If you’re nailed, then you’re nailed. If there’s a trial, it’s almost always a “he said / he said” case like this. This is why it sucks to be a prosecutor, defense attorney, or juror. The overwhelming pressure to make a plea deal creates a situation in which every jury decision is a pure judgment call. To a certain extent, Koenig is falling prey to the “CSI effect”: she shouldn’t be so surprised that there’s no smoking gun evidence introduced at trial.
On one level, I shouldn’t be surprised at all by the popularity of the show: it combines the excellent radio journalism of “This American Life” with the compulsive thrills of the true-crime genre. But I still find it a little odd, for a few reasons:

I always listen to “This American Life”, and the pilot for this show ran as a regular episode of that show, so I listened to it at the time, and enjoyed it, but I decided at the time not to make the jump over to the Serial podcast, because it seemed as there wasn’t going to be enough meat to the story. After all, Koenig had already made clear from the outset that no new big piece of exculpatory or condemnatory evidence would come out, and no new trial would be triggered, so it sounded like the whole 12 hours would be circling over the same ground already covered by the pilot. Now that I’ve gone back and listened to the whole thing, I find that it is well worth listening to, but my original opinion hasn’t changed. This isn’t really a “serial” in that it has no cliff-hangers and really no plot progression, just an ever closer-examination of the same evidence.

In addition to the lack of “Ah-ha” or “Gotcha” moment, there are other reasons that, of all the true crime stories out there, this one doesn’t seem like a particularly good candidate for a 12-part series:
  • Too many trial participants refused to be recorded (the detectives, the prosecution, the key witness, etc) or died (the defense attorney), so we’re still getting a very incomplete picture, even after all this investment.
  • Of the people who are on tape, there’s a distinct lack of “real characters”. Simply put, nobody is “giving good tape”. There are no weirdos or slicksters or dim-bulbs or tough guys that might make you say “Wow, I could just listen to this guy talk forever.” The case is just kind of dreary. There’s not a lot of personality here.
  • There’s no outrage factor. There are so many hundreds of “Innocence Project” cases with outrageous abuses by the cops or prosecution and/or infuriating incompetence by the defense. There’s not really any of that here, from what we’ve heard so far. This is just a very typical case, no matter how life-shattering it was for the victim and the accused. There’s some value in re-examining a more typical court conviction but 12 hours is pushing it, especially when there are so many more fascinating and/or infuriating cases out there.
The most baffling thing is that this show has proven to be more popular than “This American Life” itself, which has been producing superlative downloads every week for almost twenty years, including many, many true crime stories even more compelling than this one. If you discovered this show independent of TAL, then do yourself a big favor and dive into the TAL archives. They do a lot of stuff other than true-crime, but here are ten of their best true-crime episodes that you can start out with:
  1. #210: “Perfect Evidence”, on DNA exonerations and false confessions.
  2. #356: “The Prosecutor”
  3. #385: “Pro Se”
  4. #387: “Arms Trader” (This is a good example of an crime episode with just as much ambiguity but lots of huge plot twists, wild personalities, and the cheerful participation of the both the defense and the prosecution, led by a merciless young go-getter named Christopher Christie)
  5. #405: “Inside Job”
  6. #414: “Right to Remain Silent” (with amazing secret recordings by a whistleblower cop)
  7. #419: “Petty Tyrant”
  8. #487 and 488: “Harper High School”, Parts one and two
  9. #507: “Confessions”
  10. #536 “The Secret Recordings of Carmen Segarra”
Anyway, that’s my two cents. Feel free to let me know in the comments if I come across as merciless as Chris Christie...

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Straying from the Party Line: Do the Right Thing's Omniscient POV

So we’ve established that, unlike most movies, Do the Right Thing has a passive protagonist and it’s not about the solving of a large problem. This movie isn’t about a crisis that necessitates a series of tough decisions, it’s about a series of lightly-taken decisions that unexpectedly culminate in a crisis.

This brings us to another unusual thing about this movie: Many elements are not introduced from the POV of the hero.

If you think about it, this is kind of odd: Sure, there’s a huge cast, but it’s all limited to one block, and Mookie is constantly on the move and friendly with every character, so wouldn’t it make sense to simply introduce each new element in the movie from his POV? This is the way things are done in everything from “The Sopranos” to “Harry Potter”, after all. But instead, the camera chooses not to favor Mookie, jumping ahead of him or away from him several times, and introducing new elements on their own.

At first I found this very odd, but I think it makes sense: we have to cut away from Mookie’s POV so that we can see what he can’t see. After all, if he saw all of the same foreshadowing that we see, we would get too frustrated with him for not seeing the disaster coming. Ironically, this is one case in which we must sever our POV in order to maintain our empathy, because this assures us that Mookie couldn’t have predicted what we can predict, given our more-omniscient POV.

To a certain extent, the “antagonist” is merely the heavy hand of fate creating a tragedy that nobody wants, and the “protagonist” is not Mookie but the omniscient camera itself. Only the camera sees what no one person in the neighborhood can see: all of the little slights and frustrations that build up.

When we come back to this movie, we’ll take a closer look at that ironic sequence of events, but first, by request, I start off next week with my thoughts on the hit podcast Serial...

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Straying from the Party Line: Do the Right Thing's Passive Protagonist That’s Not Solving a Large Problem!

Warning: This gets long!

So finally we’ve captured that elusive beast: a great movie with a passive protagonist. In face, we have sometime even more rare: a great movie that’s not about the solving of a large problem!

Let’s start with our hapless hero Mookie, and all the ways he deviates from our list:
  • He’s not especially resourceful.
  • He has a lot more flaws than strengths.
  • He doesn’t make a lot of difficult decisions.
There is indeed a moment in just about the right spot where Mookie takes responsibility for a problem: 18 minutes in, he quickly shuts down Buggin’ Out’s first calls for a boycott, ushers him out, lectures him, and then Mookie comes back in and promises Sal that he’ll keep Buggin’ Out away from the pizza place.

So that sounds about right, and indeed this problem will get larger and larger, but Mookie himself will not do much of anything to solve that problem until it suddenly gets out of hand, more than an hour of screentime later.

(There is one scene about halfway through in which Mookie mildly repeats his advice to Buggin’ Out, but he actually makes the problem worse, because he also confirms Buggin’s worst fear by noticing that Buggin’s “Jordans are dogged”. He doesn’t suspect that the ruining of Buggin’s Air Jordans by a white homeowner on the block is by this point the real source of Buggin’s mounting anger.)

Meanwhile, Mookie skips most of the steps that we expect to see a hero go through:
  • His offhand commitment to solving this problem doesn’t lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person.
  • He doesn’t grapple with a lot of tough moral dilemmas.
  • He has no lowest point or midpoint disaster.
  • He doesn’t turn proactive until the height of the climax, when he acts suddenly, belatedly, and rashly.
So does the movie get away with all of this? Absolutely! Let’s break it down...

First of all, why doesn’t Mookie’s passivity infuriate us?
  • Like Jake Gittes back when he walked a beat in Chinatown, Mookie is in a position where it seems (at first) like the “right thing” to do is to do as little as possible. Shut down Buggin’ Out, shut down Pino, humor Smiley, compliment Raheem on his rings. We don’t get frustrated with him because it seems like he is indeed “doing the right thing” and successfully keeping the peace (You could say that the one time Mookie breaks his commitment to mildness is when he gets angry at Sal about being nice to Jade, and it is perhaps this violation of his code that karmically brings about the crisis.)
  • We can tell that a problem is brewing, and we sense that we can’t trust Mookie to resolve it, but that makes the movie more exciting. This isn’t a movie about the solving of a big problem, it’s about the gradual combustion of a suppressed problem. 
But this still leaves the question: why do we put up with it? There’s a good reasons why most stories are about active protagonists solving large problems: Because that’s how we’re primed to watch stories. Our first instinct is to invest our identification in one character, caring only about that character, and only caring about the story to the extent that we care about the character. This is the easiest way to tell a story and the easiest way to read or watch a story.

This movie asks a lot more of us. It asks us to jump around, and never plant ourselves too firmly in any one character’s shoes. This makes it harder to care, but Lee and his collaborators know how to compensate for this lack of a comfort zone:
  • It’s just really funny. The dialogue is funny. The performances are funny. The vibe is funny.
  • The editing style is bracing and invigorating. It’s bouncy. It’s brash.
  • It’s absolutely gorgeous to watch. Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson’s number one influence was Jack Cardiff, who shot Michael Powell’s movies, such as Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, and he successfully recreate the eye-popping use of impressionistic and vibrant color.
So why doesn’t it deflate the movie that nobody is trying to solve anything? I would say that we are somewhat aware as we watch that our narrative expectations are being frustrated, but we go along with it simply because we trust the filmmakers. Every aspect of the filmmaking is so good that we know we’re in safe hands, and we give the movie a reluctant benefit of the doubt until everything finally coalesces in a very satisfying way at the climax.

Next time, one more big deviation…

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Rulebook Casefile: The Hero Has to Fundamentally Change the Story

Still not completely better, believe it or not, but lets finally dig into this movie a bit.
When you’re writing a story about a fiasco, then the first instinct is to have the hero rise above the situation and wisely shake his head at the folly on display. After all, he’s a hero, and heroes are smarter and better, right?

There is no better example of this than Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Everybody is hot to get the skulls except for Indy, who gets dragged along reluctantly and keeps scoffing at how silly the whole quest is. In the end, Indy wins the race to find the skulls, reiterates that he doesn’t really care, and half-heartedly enters the cave anyway.
But this is completely wrong. The hero must drive the story, even if that makes the hero “look bad”. 

When Do the Right Thing came out, many movie critics claimed that it was morally irresponsible of Spike Lee to have his “hero” throw a trashcan through Sal’s window, rather than try to bring everybody back into harmony. Certain members of Lee’s audience, they argued, needed to be shown a demonstration of moral rectitude, or else they might swarm out into the streets after every screening, smashing every window they saw!

But, over and above the overt and covert racism of the critics, that would have made for a terrible movie. Audiences have no patience for heroes who stay above the fray. No matter what’s going down, we want our “heroes” to be in it up to their necks: When there’s greed, they should be the greediest. When there’s anger, they should be the angriest. When there’s folly, they should make the biggest fools of themselves.

In the riot, Mookie finally proves himself to be the “hero” of the story, not (necessarily) because his act was the right thing to do, but because it finally made him the fulcrum of the story: this day finally becomes his story, defined by his action, and his flaw and/or strength, depending on how you read it. Is he “the only one who could solve the problem”? Not really, but he’s the only person with a foot in both worlds, and therefore he decides that it’s his duty to tip the situation decisively in one direction.

Lee’s most daring move, in fact, was not his hero’s climactic action, but all of Mookie’s laid back actions before that. We’ll look at that next time…