Sunday, September 28, 2014

Rulebook Casefile: The (Strange) Way the World Works in Raising Arizona

In the checklist, I recommend that you establish whether the physics of your world are realistic or stylized, but when I went to my 15 existing checklist roadtests, I was surprised to find that all 15 fell in the “realistic” category (even in The Bourne Identity and Iron Man, the physics are relatively realistic, compared to similar movies in those genres).

But Raising Arizona introduces us to the world of gentle physics. This is most obvious in the blessed life of Nathan Jr, who manages to fall of the roof of a car and endures many other hardships without so much as a scratch.

So how does a movie get us to accept stylized physics? By creating a very stylized tone right away. Star Wars uses its famous fairy-tale title card to temper our expectation of realistic physics in that world, and this movie does something similar with its banjo-and-yodel opening music and shaggy-dog-story narration. This establishes a mood that might be described as “tall tale” or “folk ballad”.

This also brings us back around to the light consequences of this movie that we discussed last time. This is a movie, after all, in which a couple steal a rich man’s baby easily, just by putting a latter against his house, then return it the same way, even after he’s on his guard, and when he finally catches them in the act, he just says “aw shucks, that’s okay,” and gives them advice on how to save their marriage!

Usually, audiences demand that movies reflect the way the world works, and that have real consequences for the characters’ actions. We want these things so that we can believe in and invest in this world, so that we can play along in our seats and try to guess what might happen, secure in the knowledge that the movie will “play fair” with us, and not give itself an out that we couldn’t have guessed.

But this movie alters those expectations very quickly, creating a surreal space in which we shift to a more child-like type of viewing. Here we will receive a different sort of comfort: instead of the reassurance that things will conform to our understanding of behavior, this offers us the reassurance that, thought we’re in a absurd and unpredictable world, at least we’re in gentle hands, and nothing that bad can happen, even when babies go flying off of car roofs, and likable kidnappers get caught red-handed.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Straying from the Party Line: The Tidy Conclusion of Raising Arizona

Deviation #2: The movie ends with another long voiceover montage in order to wrap everything up.

The Problem: This should also be off-putting, denying the audience a chance to decide for ourselves what everything means in the end. And by tying off all of the loose plot threads, we have less to think about afterwards.

Does the Movie Get Away With It? Somewhat, but it’s more problematic than the opening montage. Let’s start with the montage of what happens to all of the other characters. On the one hand, it’s delightful to see Gale and Evelle go back to prison by climbing back into the mudhole they climbed out of, but surely there was no need to show brother-in-law Glen getting his eventual comeuppance after telling a Polish joke to a Polish cop?

Recently, the Coens’ endings have been anything but tidy. For the most part that’s good: We enjoy the frustration of not knowing what happened to the money in Fargo or No Country for Old Men, for instance. One could argue that in their most recent movies they’ve actually take this a little too far in the other direction (see the anticlimactic endings of A Serious Man and Inside Llewyn Davis) but their recent instincts are still good: it’s better to trust the viewers rather than hold their hands at the end.

As for Hi’s summation of what happens to himself and Ed, the ending tries a little too hard to be satisfying by having it both ways:
  • First we get the “real consequences” version, in which the couple, still childless, content themselves to send anonymous gifts to Nathan Arizona, Jr, every year, and live vicariously through his accomplishments.
  • But then we get another vague ending tacked onto that one, implying that Hi and Ed somehow did get to raise kids and have a large family of their own someday.
This feels a little “80s” to me, like the Coens are being overgenerous to the their characters. This was still a point when indies were anxious to prove that they could be just as satisfying as Hollywood films. Don’t get me wrong, this is far preferable to modern indie movies, which too often equate “realism” with bleakness and misery, but I do wish that the Coens had trusted their bittersweet “root for Nathan, Jr. from afar” ending.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Straying from the Party Line: Telling vs Showing in Raising Arizona

Deviation #1: The movie begins with a massive 10 minute voiceover montage in order to introduce its characters and launch its plot. This is the definition of a showing-not-telling: an undramatized info dump.

The Problem: This should be boring, stultifying and off-putting, denying the audience a chance to decide for ourselves what we think of this world and the characters in it.

Does the Movie Get Away With It? Very much so. Why? The short answer is: for the same reason that the Coens have been able to get away with breaking the rules ever since.
  • It’s so funny it makes you weep. Cage’s monologue is marvelously droll and witty, and the little snippets of what other people say are just as funny.
  • Cage’s performance is mesmerizing. He becomes a star in front of our eyes. Hunter as well. She has a lot to sell here: convincing us, with almost no dialogue, that she, as a cop, will gradually fall in love with a crook over the course of a few bookings, but she beautifully pulls it off.
  • In the same manner as an absurd “shaggy dog story”, the Coens always have an element of audacity: intentionally tapping into our sense of “Movies can’t do this!” in a way that excites us instead of annoying us. This montage, more than anything in their previous feature Blood Simple, establishes the sort of refreshingly-bizarre narrative sprawl that has lasted them throughout their careers.
  • Crucially, there’s only one piece of (fantastic) music used throughout, to let us know that this is all prologue to the story. They’re not dumping the actual story on us, they’re just getting us to the starting line, which is more acceptable. When the music finally ends, we are subtly assured that they’ll start playing by the rules now and dramatizing each scene in real time.
But let’s look at one last problem: in the very first Storyteller’s Rulebook, I talked about how audience are actually willing to have you tell them the plot (which this does in abundance) but they’re far more insistent that you show them who the characters are: Let us hear some dialogue and decide how much we like this guy, stead of being told to like him. As I put it then:
  • In real life, if someone tells me, “I’m a doctor,” I’ll probably believe him. If that doctor then tells me “I’m well-known and well-liked and very honorable,” I get suspicious. I don't want them to tell me that. I’m not going to believe them anyway. The only way I’ll believe that is if they show me. It’s the same way with writing. Audiences don’t mind being told what’s going on, but they’re not going to let you just tell them which characters to like or dislike.
So why, in this case, are we willing to have Hi describe not only the plot but his character as well? Here it’s useful to look at the script. The Coens are famous for their meticulous scripting, and indeed this entire montage appears verbatim in the script …with the exception of one very funny line that was cut:
  • “I was in for writing hot checks which, when businessmen do it, is called an overdraft. I'm not complainin’, mind you; just sayin’ there ain’t no pancake so thin it ain’t got two sides.”
That’s a great line, so why was it cut? Because, in its attempt to make Hi more sympathetic, this line makes him less so. In the final film, we assume that he is going to jail for stick-up work, a more serious crime for which he offers no mitigation, but because he isn’t telling us that he’s not so bad, we’re more likely to reach that conclusion for ourselves.

So while this is clearly an example of telling-not-showing the plot, the Coens made the smart decision to show-not-tell character.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Ultimate Story Checklist: Raising Arizona

Criminal H. I. McDunnough (“Hi”) goes straight when he marries policewoman Edwina (“Ed”), but when she discovers that she’s barren, and a local millionaire has quintuplets, she convinces Hi to kidnap one. Soon everyone is coming after the baby: Ed’s brother-in-law/boss Glen, Hi’s prison buddies Gale and Evelle, and demonic bounty hunter Leonard Smalls.
Part #1: CONCEPT 20/21                          
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?                                                                                                    
Uniquely appealing logline?
A desperate childless couple steal a baby from a family with quintuplets, but two escaped convicts and a ruthless bounty hunter complicate things.
Twist on a classic story type?
A zanier and sweeter kidnap story.
Fundamentally ironic?
Hi tries to goes straight by kidnapping a baby.
Identifiable but bigger?
The urge to have a family at all costs, combined with the fear of family commitment, get pushed to absurd extremes.
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?
Simple enough plot?
Not really.  It’s pretty complicated.  The first ten minutes is all narrated montage and the twists and turns never stop coming. 
One “hero” for audience?
Follows problem, not person
For instance, when it starts to cut away to Smalls, it uses the excuse of a dream in which Hi conjures up Smalls as a projection of his guilt, allowing this second storyline to become an extension of the one problem.
Unique central relationship?
The couple are an ex-con and ex-cop.
Actual person opposed?
Lots of them.
Plot is hero’s hope, fear and/or ironic answer?
Greatest hope (have a family) and greatest fear (return to crime).
Hero has volatile reaction?
  His first instinct when things go wrong is to rob another convenience store.
Hard to want to do?
  They’re good people, and they don’t want to steal a baby.
Hero working the hardest?
Only hero can solve problem?
  It comes down to just Hi and Smalls.
Hero transforms situation?
Situation transforms hero?
  He finds out what family really means and matures.
The Hook: Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?
An image not seen before?
  The five babies, the bounty hunter, the prison escape, etc.
A “Holy crap” scene?
  The prison escape, the baby on the roof of the car, etc.
A surprise in the 2nd half?
  The escapees taking the baby, etc.
Marketable without spoilers?
Compelling before and after?
Part #2: CHARACTER 21/23
Believe: Do we recognize the hero as a human being?
A moment of humanity?
Funny narration, compassion towards Ed, out-of-character hatred then respect towards Reagan.
Defined by actions and attitudes, not backstory?
Despite all that opening narration, we know very little backstory, just current actions.
Well-defined public identity?
The no-good convenience store robber.
Contrasts with a hidden self?
The sweet do-gooder husband.
Consistent metaphor family?
Ambition: cowboy: “See, I come from a long line of frontiersmen and outdoor types” “Her insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase.” “I preminisced no return of the salad days.” “Even my job seemed as dry and bitter as the prairie wind.”
A default personality trait?
  Mild, underreacting, put-upon
A default argument tactic?
  Folds quickly
A strong, simple, not-selfless, obvious motivation at first?
  Get his wife a baby.
Care: Do we feel for the hero?
Starts with false philosophy (or accepts false advice)?
Accepts bad advice from Gale: “Sometimes your career (crime) has to come before family.”
Has a false or short-sighted goal in the first half?
Raise Nathan Jr. as their own.
An open anxiety?
Going back to jail
A hidden, private fear?
  That he’ll be a bad dad.
Vulnerable, both physically and emotionally?
An untenable great flaw…?
  Criminal tendency, desire to take the easy path, perhaps a secret wish to return to jail.  As the brothers say, “We keep going until we can retire, or we get caught. Either way we’ll be set for life.”
Invest: Can we trust the hero to tackle this challenge?
which is the flip-side of a great strength?
  Not really the flip side: he’s loving and totally dedicated to Ed’s happiness.
Is the hero curious?
Is the hero resourceful?
Rules he or she lives by?
He thinks he does (he has vague notions about what it means to be a man) but in reality he gets pulled in different directions and talked out of things easily.
Others lack his or her most valuable quality?
  Most lack his inclination to fly right (even Ed and her sister and brother-in-law).  He’s the ex-con, but everybody has a little larceny in their heart (although, like him, everybody is won over by Nathan Jr.)
Hero lets them know that?
No, he’s reluctant to criticize
Actively pursuing early goal?
  Yes, he’s pursuing Ed as much as he can during their brief encounters.
Decision-making authority?
Pre-established special skills?
Armed robbery, which he resorts to again and again.
Part #3: STRUCTURE (if the story is about the solving of a large problem) 21/24
1st Quarter: Is the challenge laid out in the first quarter?
Irritated about social problem (but in denial about flaw)?
Tired of going back to prison, drawn to Ed.
Suffers a social humiliation?
Keeps getting sent back, finds out they’re infertile.
An intimidating opportunity to fix the problem appears?
They hear about the Arizona quintuplets.
Hesitates until stakes raised?
Not that we see.  They go for it.
Commits to opportunity?
  They take the kid.
2nd Quarter: Does the hero try the easy way in the second quarter?
Leads to unforeseen conflict?
  The brothers escape prison.
Tries the easy way?
  They lie to the brothers.
Hero or villain has a little fun?
  They love having the kid.
Excited about success?
Not really.  They’re pretty worried the whole time.
A midpoint disaster?
  Several: The in-laws come over. They have lots of questions about Jr. Hi punches out his boss for suggesting wife swapping. Hi steals some Huggies and some money, which leads to lots of complications with cops, dogs, and an armed clerk. The in-law confronts Hi and demands the baby, the brothers take the baby.
3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
Loses a safe space?
Hi loses his job and his baby and his house gets trashed.
Tries the hard way?
  They take off to get their baby back.
Character decisions drive it now, not plot complications?
Somewhat.  There are more character complications now, but there’s still lots of plot.
Friends & enemies revealed?
  The brothers and the brother-in-law turn on Hi.
Stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate?
Learns from mistakes?
  They realize it was wrong to take the baby.
Has a spiritual crisis?
  They decide to split up after all this is over.
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Gains corrected philosophy?
  “You were right and I was wrong. We got a family here and I’m gonna start acting responsibly.
Discovers a corrected goal?
Save the baby, then return him.
Switches to proactive?
They lock and load and hit the road.
Timeline gets moved up?
Leonard Smalls shows up.
All strands come together for climactic confrontation?
Pretty much.
Inner struggle climaxes with or after outer struggle?
Yes, after Smalls is dead, they hash out their relationship issues with Nathan Arizona.
Epilogue shows change?
  They send gifts to Nathan Jr. as he grows up.  Maybe they’re able to have kids, or maybe that’s just a dream.
Part #4: SCENEWORK 23/23 (Gale and Evelle, the brothers from prison, show up at Hi and Ed’s trailer unexpectedly the night that they bring the baby home.)
The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
Expectations pre-established?
Ed just made him promise,“Everything decent and normal from here on out.” When they first knock at the door, Ed and Hi fear that it’s the police and load a gun.
Cuts out the beginning?
Hi greets them offscreen before Ed comes in, so that we only have to have one set of intros.
Intimidating, active setting?
All sorts of clues in the room give away their lies.
One partner not planning to have this conversation?
Ed and Hi just want to sleep.
A non-plot complication?
They tunneled through a sewer, so they stink to high heaven.
A mini-ticking-clock?
They want to go back to sleep.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Reveals plot and character?
Very much so.
At least one character emotionally affected?
Hi feels humiliated by the brothers’ ribbing, Ed has her worst fears about Hi confirmed
Audience has a rooting interest (which may shift)?
We mostly side with Ed, but we’re very sympathetic to Hi’s dilemma.
Two agendas clashing?
The brothers demand to stay, Ed demands they go.
Surface conflict and a suppressed conflict?
Surface: Can they stay? Suppressed: Is Hi going to have to change for his family? Is he going to stay out of jail?
Conflict through subtext?
See above.
Cagy about feelings?
Ed uses the baby as an excuse to kick them out.
Verbal tricks and traps?
Gale traps them into lying about where the baby came from, traps Hi into letting them stay by ribbing him.
Re-blocking and one touch?
Hi hugs Evelle, then playfully slaps Gale, then puts an arm around Evelle, then goes and puts an arm around Ed instead. 
Objects given or taken?
Evelle paws through their M&Ms while talking about going through the sewage.  
Broken down into mini-goals?
First they want in, then they want to find out about the baby, then they want to stay.
The Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?
One or both do something they didn’t intend to do?
Hi lets them stay.
Outcome ironically reverses (or fulfills) intention?
They were afraid it would be someone who wanted to send them to prison, but it was friends, but the friends also seem destined to send them back.
Old questions answered?
Where are the brothers going?
New questions posed?
What will Gale do with his suspicions about the baby.
Audience left with hope and/or fear for what’s next?
We are now filled with dread. We’re sure that these guys will bring disaster to the house.
Cut out early, on a question?
  “Got you on a pretty short leash, doesn’t she, Hi?”
Part #5: DIALOGUE 18/19
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Shows empathy for all?
Very much so.  Jr. brings out everybody’s vulnerabilities.
Each character has a limited perspective, even the hero?
Very much so.  Hi’s humble voiceover is more about what he doesn’t know than what he does know. 
Only want what they want?
Very much so.
All resist admitting feelings?
Very much so.
All avoid saying things they wouldn’t say?
Hi is very mealy-mouthed.
Characters listen poorly?
Interrupt each other?
Yes, Hi never gets to finish a sentence.
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
Captures the jargon?
  Yes. “We released ourselves on our own recognizance.”
Captures the tradecraft?
  Somewhat: committing crimes with an unloaded gun because the sentences are so much shorter, banks putting in paint packets, etc.
Others with distinct metaphor families?
Gale: reform, Evelle: pop-psychology, Glen: jokes
Others with default personality traits?
Gale: friendly-but-aggressive, Evelle: sweet, Glen: bigoted
Others with default argument strategies?
Gale: lets you hang yourself, Ed: asking a long line of pointed questions leading to a predetermined outcome
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
More concise than real talk?
More personality than real?
A minimum of commas?
No clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
Non-3-D characters impartially polarized?
Even though they have elements of caricature, they’re all actually fairly well-rounded, with elements of head, heart and gut. (Exceptions: Evelle has no head, Smalls has no heart)
Strategic: Are certain dialogue scenes withheld until necessary?
Exposition withheld until audience/hero demand it?
Nope, we begin with a massive ten-minute info-dump.
One gutpunch scene?
  Yes, they discuss splitting up.
Part #6: TONE 16/16
Genre: Does the story tap into pre-established expectations?
Fixed genre, doesn’t switch?
  The small-time-crook white-comedy
Compatible sub-genres?
  A minor sub-genre of noir that the Coens revived from, the fictional film that mimics the absurdities of true-crime stories at their strangest.  
Satisfy the urges?
  Lots of big laughs, such as the big chase scene.
Unrealistic elements a big metaphor?
  Smalls represents his guilt, etc.
Satisfies most genre expectations, defies others?
  They get an unlikely happy ending (getting forgiven for the crime), but not as happy as it could have been (if they had gotten to keep the kid)
Mood: Does the story create a certain feeling?
A consistent mood?
  The amazing theme song creates a “folk-ballad” mood.
Physics established early on?
  The physics are simpler and more gentle than our world: the brothers tunnel out through the mud, the baby survives falling off a car roof twice
Nature of the stakes established and maintained?
  Social and spiritual. Hi’s dreams about Smalls establish the stakes long before they appear.
Framing: Does the story set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
Open questions posed early?
  Sort of.  Will the salad days return?  Who is this man in Hi’s dreams?
Dramatic question posed?
  At what point will Nathan Arizona confront his kid’s kidnappers.
Framing devices?
  Tons of voiceover and montage.
Parallel characters prefigure various fates for the hero?
  Her sister and brother-in-law represent his worst fears of becoming a dad, and the brothers represent his worst fears of returning to a life of crime.
Foreshadowing creates anticipation and suspense?
  The dreams about Smalls.
Set-up and pay-off distracts from contrivances?
  The banks is nicely set up, with them showing him the clipping, and then the place getting trashed, and then Smalls finding the clipping in the trashed house, so that they can all end up in the same place.
Reversible behavior?
  The Spock book is finally left behind, etc. 
Dramatic question answered at the very end?
  They finally come face to face with Nathan Sr.
Part 7: THEME 10/14
Difficult: Is the meaning of the story derived from a fundamental moral dilemma?
Irreconcilable good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
  Settle for a meager legal life vs. achieving a better life through extra-legal means.
Thematic question asked out loud (or implied)?
  He asks us, “Now I don’t know where you come down on the incarceration question, whether it’s for rehabilitation or revenge…”
Consistently have to choose between goods (or evils)?
  Put fugitives out of your house in the rain?  Swap wives to keep your job?
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Reflects the way the world works?
No. This follows the rules of a folk-ballad (it’s easy to break into the rich man’s house, and then he forgives them when he finds out they’ve taken his kid, and even takes an interest in saving their marriage! Certainly, Smalls, too, is very unrealistic.)
Authentic observations about this type of setting?
  There’s lots of good Southwest oddity, such as watching the sunset from deck chairs, various state laws, etc.
Twinges of national pain?
  Very much so. JFK, Nixon and Reagan are all name checked. “I tried to stand up and fly straight, but it wasn’t easy with that sumbitch Reagan in the White House. I dunno, they say he’s a decent man, so… maybe his advisors are confused.”
Avoids moral hypocrisy?
  Yes.  Mr. Arizona isn’t turned into a monster in order to justify the kidnapping, for instance. 
Actions have consequences?
Yes and no.  It makes sense that the whole thing unravels so quickly, but it’s crazy that they face no consequences for the kidnapping (or for killing Smalls!).  As for the consequences of giving up on a baby, the movie hedges, first implying that they had to content themselves with sending gifts to Nathan Jr. from afar, but then implying that maybe they did have kids after all.
Subtle: Is the theme interwoven throughout so that it need not be discussed often?
Small details throughout tied into the theme?
  Very much so: when the brothers break out of jail, it looks like a birth, Smalls has baby shoes on his bike.  Ed sings song to baby about dad going to prison.
Objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout?
  The Dr. Spock book, the baby himself, the guns.
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimate irresolvable?
Ending tips towards on one side of thematic dilemma?
  Settling for a meager legal life is better, though disappointing.
Outcome ironically contrasts with the initial goal?
  Yes, they are pushed apart by stealing the baby and brought back together by returning it.
Plot isn’t entirely tidy?
It’s fairly tidy, using lots of voiceover to explain lots of little things, like what happened to the brother-in-law, etc.
Characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning?
Nope, he does a lot of synthesizing, at the end and through out. Even when he doubts his conclusion (about Reagan, for instance) we don’t.
Final Score: 129 out of 140. 
We’ll break down some of that tomorrow...