Rulebook Casefile: National Pain in “Get Out”

I always say that if you really want your story to resonate with the a lot of people, it should tap into National Pain. Is there any better example of this than Get Out? Here’s Peele in a discussion with Chance the Rapper on the DVD:

  • All the great horror films have something to say. They have a real horror that they’re about, and the issue of racism had been ignored in this genre, and I felt like this meant to fill in a gap, a missing piece of conversation. Maybe this’ll fuck shit up in the wrong way, I don’t know. Art and communication is the one tool we have against the true horror of the world which is violence, so I hope that this is an inclusive experience, and that it inspires people to just talk. We’re also in need right now for things that are going to bring us together as people, so hopefully this movie creates a collective creative catharsis, in a way.

In the commentary, he talks about how he wrote the script under Obama but shot it under Trump:

  • When President Obama was elected, we entered this era that I call the post-racial lie: “We got a black president, it’s done, we’re past it.” And many of us know that race is very much alive and racism is alive and it’s the monster that was simmering beneath the surface of the country for a while, and so I felt like this movie was originally meant to address that. Now we live in a completely different era, and it’s been fascinating to see how this movie’s journey has led up to this moment, where now I feel like it’s more relevant in a way than ever.

Interestingly, he says that the shift from Obama to Trump was the reason he changed the ending:

  • By the time I was shooting it, it was quite clear the world had shifted, racism was being dealt with, people were woke, and people needed a release and a hero, which is why I changed the ending and had Rod show up at the end.

(I say in my checklist that movies should reflect the way the world works, and that’s far more true of the original ending, but I agree with Peele: Everyone needed to stand up and cheer instead of seeing how it would actually go down. The brilliant solution was to give us that moment where we think he’s going to be arrested, and that hits us like a ton of bricks …but then it’s Rod, and our horror turns to elation. He’s giving us both emotions.)

It’s interesting to try to parse exactly what the movie is saying about the Obama era. One key question that can’t be answered: Is Dean telling the truth when he says he’d vote for Obama a third time? Is that just a lie to put Chris at ease, or does he mean it? Obviously what Dean’s group wants is white minds in black skins. Is Peele saying that that’s what Obama represented to some pseudo-liberals? (Chris is neither surprised nor impressed when Dean tells him this.) Peele says in the commentary that in America, “all black people are in the Sunken Place” One can’t help but wonder to what degree that he’s talking about Obama specifically.
 Peele first became a household name (and got to meet Obama) because of a recurring skit on his TV show where he impersonated Obama’s placid exterior while his sketch partner Keegan Michael Key acted out Obama’s hidden angry side. It was hilarious, and painful, and cathartic: Obama fans were gratified to finally get to see the anger that surely must be trapped under the surface of “No-Drama Obama”, possibly in his own personal Sunken Place.  It’s unimaginable what Obama must have gone through as he endured constant racial hatred from Fox News, but he rarely let it show.

Peele is grappling with profound national pain, but he’s doing so in an entertaining, even thrilling way, without a lot of speeches.  His metaphor does the work.

Rulebook Casefile: A Small Thematic Detail in “Lady Bird”

In the opening moments of Lady Bird, Lady Bird and her mother are wrapping up their college visit trip around California, and they finish listening to the audiobook of “The Grapes of Wrath”.

The book, of course, is about a road trip from hell: The Joads are victims of the dust bowl in Oklahoma, but handbills lure them to California, promising a life of ease (“You can just reach out and pick fruit off the trees.”) They arrive to find that California is not nurturing after all, but rather brutally inhospitable. The daughter’s newborn baby dies, but she finds a man starving to death and offers him the only succor he’ll find in California: the grown man suckles her breast milk.

Just enough of the audiobook plays in the movie that, if you’ve read the book, you’ll be reminded of that ending, but if you haven’t you wouldn’t know what was going on. Any meaning the audience gets from that detail is dependent on the knowledge of the book we bring with us. But if you do know the book, the thematic meaning is rich.

Lady Bird is with her own un-nurturing mother, roaming California backroads looking for a place that will take them in, but she lacks high enough grades to impress them (She ain’t got the do-re-mi) and she concludes over the course of her road trip that California is not a state where she’ll feel nurtured. She wants to live through something. She is rejecting the breast violently when she jumps out of the car.

The main role the audiobook plays in the film is just to indicate that they’ve been at peace for 21 hours of driving, enjoying something smart together, but tensions are just waiting to explode as soon as the pacifying agent is turned off. But Gerwig had a choice to make: Which book? Writing involves dozens of such choices (and directing involves hundreds of such choices), and each is a chance to pack the story with more meaning, even if it will only be meaningful for a subset of your audience. Make meaningful choices every time you get the opportunity.

New Video: Irony

Remember how shocked you were when I put out a new podcast episode, after more than a year away?  Well get ready to be flabbergasted, because here’s a new video after more than two years!  When I launched my book in late 2016, I had an ambitious plan that I would have a new video every other week from then on and a podcast episode on all the off weeks.  Ha!  Turns out that videos are a lot of work.  But I'm very happy with the four I’ve made and I’ve wanted to do a new one on irony for a while.  And I’m mostly talking about a movie we haven’t already discussed to death on the blog!  Let me know what you think, please.

(I’ve also replaced the Moment of Humanity video with a cleaner version, since kids like the videos.  No more 40 Year Old Virgin opening shot!)

Rulebook Casefile: Choosing Between Goods is Always Stronger

As I said before, many critics said that Ava DuVernay was unfair to LBJ in Selma, but as Amy Davidson-Sorkin pointed out in “The New Yorker”, DuVernay was actually more than fair in at least one way. I’ll quote Davidson-Sorkin this time:

  • Reading [Taylor] Branch’s account of that period, it is revealing how distracted Johnson was by Vietnam. In the days when the scenes of violence in Alabama should have been his focus, he was in endless meetings with Robert McNamara about a secret order to begin a bombing campaign. “It was this crisis that had shortened his patience for King’s visit from Selma,” Branch writes. There is not much mention of Vietnam in “Selma”; in this, the filmmakers did Johnson a kindness.

If DuVernay’s goal was really to turn LBJ from the co-hero of the movement into the villain, as many affronted LBJ supporters claimed, surely Vietnam would have been the way to go. All she had to do was honestly depict those McNamara meetings. And of course including Vietnam would have been dramatic: Death! Explosions! Great betrayals! Tragic downfalls!

Instead, her Johnson says that he can’t do what King wants because he’s rather use his political capital on his War on Poverty. In a great use of objects to physicalize the plot, he’s actually got his plan in a leather folder and tries to hand it to King but King refuses to accept it and forces Johnson to put it down, literally and figuratively.

DuVernay (and/or credited writer Paul Webb) knows that great drama comes from choosing between goods, not from choosing between good and evil (as would have been the case in a choice between voting rights and Vietnam). Good vs. evil is a no-brainer with a pat solution, but good vs. good is an anguishing choice. Ultimately, of course, we know that Johnson brilliantly pushed through both the War on Poverty and voting rights, but in the movie, it’s a tough call that’s left unresolved, which is always good with a thematic conflict. We like it when a story tips towards one side of a thematic conflict but leaves the question open and not fully resolved. That makes a story meaty.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Let Absurdity Clash with Meaning

“A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is beloved by nerds everywhere, many of whom, like myself, are atheists, and indeed Adams defined himself as a “radical atheist”, but he followed that up with “I love to keep poking and prodding at it. I've thought about it so much over the years that that fascination is bound to spill over into my writing.”  Indeed, let’s look at that prodding.  First we get this exchange, about the Babel fish:

  • Now, it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mind-bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some have chosen to see it as the final proof of the NON-existence of God. The argument goes something like this:
  • “I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.”
  • “But,” says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves that You exist, and so therefore, by Your own arguments, You don't. QED”
  • “Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn't thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.
  • “Oh, that was easy,” says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.

But of course, God is right there having this conversation, isn’t he? He doesn’t stand up to logical scrutiny, so he must go, but only after he created the universe: “In the beginning the universe was created. This made a lot of people very unhappy and has widely been regarded as a bad move.”

So, setting aside what we know of Adams, the theism of the book is ambiguous. What about Christianity specifically? Right there on the first page, we get praise for Jesus...

  • And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change…

Then there’s the issue of the larger quest. We later find out that humankind has a greater purpose. It has been determined that the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything is “42”, but then what’s the question? It turns out that Earth were invented to discover that question. In other words, life on Earth is a search for meaning.

By the fourth book, Earth has been recreated, and presumably that search is still going on, but the characters get distracted by another quest, to find “God’s final message to his creation”. The fact that they even seek this out is telling. It turns out the message is “WE APOLOGISE FOR THE INCONVENIENCE.” So we get the sense that Adams, and by extension, his characters, are really deists: God created us, and gave us a purpose, but then we banished him with a “puff of logic” and now have to search out his meaning on our own, using the scraps he’s left behind.

We love these books for their absurdity, but Adams’s grappling with God give them a lot of their power. Absurdity is more powerful if it clashes with meaning.

Best of 2017, #2: Get Out

Not the Way the World Works (but that’s okay): I always have a problem with movies where the hero says, “This guy has framed me for murder, so I’ll just kill him and everything will be okay,” but the most ridiculous example had to be Collateral, because of the racial element. If a black cabbie kills a white man in a nice suit, even if there’s a black woman there to vouch for him, then forget it, he’s getting the chair. This movie doesn’t have the frame element but could be accused of the same “get away with killing white people” problem, and indeed the original ending was Chris getting hauled away, but I think they get away with a happy ending here by simply letting us have that moment of horror when Chris sees the police lights and raises his hands and we suddenly realize how all this will look…but then the relief washes over us when it’s his friend. We know it’s bogus, but at least the movie let us glimpse what would really happen before giving us the less-realistic-but-more-satisfying stand-up-and-cheer ending.

Mystery Plotting: I could rehash them here, but I’ll just point you to this list of Easter eggs showing the movie’s meticulous plotting and imagery. One reason this movie made so much money is because people were watching it twice, and finding it even more satisfying the second time, which usually isn’t the case with “big twist” movies.

National Pain: How do you solve a problem like Trayvon Martin? How do you address that pain in a movie? You can make a movie like Fruitvale Station about the facts of the case, and that would certainly be worth making, or you can make a movie like this, about the growing horror black men feel that they’re not safe in white neighborhoods. Drama is how it is, genre is how it feels, and they’re both equally valid.

Best of 2017 Runner-Up #7: Dunkirk

I didn’t see this movie until it came out on DVD, and I knew very little about it. All I knew was that it was written and directed by Christopher Nolan, that it had four movie stars in it, and that it told the story of the Dunkirk invasion in many locations: on the beaches, in the air, and on the water. Based on these three facts, I naturally assumed that it was going to be another bloated 3 hour mess, with lots of Churchill speeches, etc.

It wasn’t until I got the DVD in the mail that I was shocked to see a 106 minute runtime. Had Nolan actually made a non-bloated movie?? When I watched it, I discovered that it did have some of Nolan’s usual problems:

  • As usual, the cinematography was too muddy, which meant that I couldn’t tell the two black-haired beach-heroes apart, and I also couldn’t tell whose plane was whose in the aerial dogfights.
  • It’s got yet another overbearing Hans Zimmer score…

But the movie works, and even Zimmer’s score works. Because so many stretches of the movie were dialogue-free, Zimmer had enough room to play, for once. How did Nolan make such a slim, elegant movie, after making so many messes?

  • We have three stories, but they’re all based around the same event. To do this, he mixes up the chronology, creating a gradual realization for the viewer that the three locations are on slightly different timelines. One storyline happens over the course of two days, one over a day, and one over an hour or two. I’m not crazy about this, because I never fully understood it, but it undeniably makes for an exciting movie. Each storyline gets a nice mix of action and silent stretches in a hypnotic pattern.
  • He’s tapping into modern-day national pain, both in England and America. Once again, it feels like the Nazis are winning, making it all the more terrifying to see the moment they seemed to win the war in the last century.  It’s a timely reminder that the Nazis weren’t destined to lose by the tide of history: They almost won, and in the end they only lost because a bunch of people fought really hard.  
  • Almost every Nolan movie before this had its fair share of ludicrous plotting (which sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t.) I didn’t think he could handle reality. He must have found it very liberating to have a movie where didn’t have to constantly ask himself, “will they buy this next plot turn?” He’s not selling anything, so he’s not falling all over himself. He knows we’ll accept it, so he relaxes.

Best of 2017 Introduction, and Didn’t Make the List: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Hi guys! So it was a pretty good year for movies. Unlike previous years, where my list had lots of idiosyncratic choices, my list is mostly Oscar nominees this year. I don’t know if this means that I’m changing or the Oscars are, but I suspect it’s the latter. My top two probably wouldn’t have been nominees in previous years.

As usual, I’ll mention the movies I haven’t seen first: The Darkest HourIt, Atomic Blonde, Logan Lucky, MotherDownsizing, and others I’m not thinking of.

How we’re going to do it this year is first we’re going to talk about four movies that didn’t make the list (one today, three tomorrow), then I’ll talk about five runners-up (for three days), then I’ll do my top five (with maybe a couple of days on #1). So let’s start with:
Didn’t Make the List: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

There’s a lot to like about this movie, especially Frances McDormand’s fierce and funny performance, but boy oh boy did it fall apart. Here are three problems:

Moral murkiness: People have been saying that this is a prescient “MeToo” movie, but is it? Going in, I only knew that this was a movie about a righteous mother who was upset that the police had made no arrests in the rape and murder of her daughter. Based on that, I assumed that this was going to be the case where everybody knew a rich man’s son did it, but the cops wouldn’t arrest him for political reasons. Instead it was a very different movie, where it quickly became clear that a good cop had really exhausted every angle of the case and just came up short.

This is in some ways a braver choice, but it means that the movie actually feels more emblematic of the MeToo backlash: A woman is so upset about a rape that (according to one conversation in the movie) she wants to throw civil rights and due process out the window and now she’s lashing out at her own allies and hurting her own cause! Not surprisingly, this is a movie written by a man.

Not the way the world works: There’s nothing inherently wrong with wading into morally murky territory like that, but it’s a tricky line to walk, and this movie drunkenly veers all over it. McDormand’s character starts off with the notion that this police department is too scared to make arrests, but soon she’s taking advantage of that to a ludicrous degree. The first hint is when she viciously hurts the dentist and the police let her go, but then she firebombs the police station and the cops don’t care! (A cop later confirms that they knew she did it, as of course they would.)  That’s not the way the world works. Not to mention that one of the cops engages in an assault so egregious that it’s crazy he doesn’t get arrested, even in a corrupt town. It’s ludicrously over the top.

The Sorkin Stammer: But this is what I most dislike about the movie. The movie is in some ways critical of McDormand’s self-righteousness, but at other times it indulges it to an annoying degree, pitting her against stammering straw men in a way that’s supposed to make us stand up and cheer but just made me roll my eyes. Nothing is worse that her denunciation of the priest, who just sits there sputtering, letting her score all the points. Here’s the thing about priests: they love to be denounced. That’s their comfort zone. They’ve trained their whole lives for that.  I didn’t buy it.  Always avoid the Sorkin stammer.

Tomorrow: Three acclaimed sci-fi movies

Interweaving an Irreconcilable Theme: The Archive

Well, it’s happened again, I went searching for my Theme series only to discover that I never did one!  As with  Dialogue, I apparently just stitched that portion of the Checklist together out of Storyteller’s Rulebook pieces, so I have to dump all my Theme pieces here and let you put it together yourself!

The Many Ironies of Casablanca

As I update the old checklists, I thought it would also be good to take some time along the way to look deeper into irony. As we did with Blazing Saddles, let’s run through fourteen ironies you can find in Casablanca:

Your story will be more meaningful if you present a fundamentally ironic concept (which will sometimes be encapsulated by an ironic title).
  • The least patriotic American has to save the Allied cause. (The title is not ironic.)
There are three big ways to have ironic characterization: Your heroes will be more compelling if they have an ironic backstory…
  • Rick the cynic used to be an idealist
…an ironic contrast between their exterior and interior…
  • Rick the cynic is filled with tender heartache
…and a great flaw that’s the ironic flip side of a great strength.
  • He’s too cold-blooded, but the flip side is that he’s very cool.
Structure centers around another great irony: Though your heroes might initially perceive this challenge as an unwelcome crisis, it will often prove to be a crisis that ironically provides just the opportunity your heroes need, directly or indirectly, to address their longstanding social problems and/or internal flaws.
  • Rick finds heroic fulfillment by being placed in a deadly situation and having his heart ripped up again.
Each scene will be more meaningful if the hero encounters a turn of events that upsets some pre-established ironic presumptions about what would happen.
  • Rick has made it clear he doesn’t care if Victor makes it out of Casablanca.
Likewise, the conclusion of each scene will be more meaningful if the character’s actions result in an ironic scene outcome, in which the events of the scene ironically flip the original intention, even if things turn out well for the hero.
  • When Rick discovers that Victor is with Ilsa, he suddenly has to care.
There are several types of ironic dialogue: On the one hand, there’s intentionally ironic dialogue, such as sarcasm.
  • Rick is insulted, but says, “I stay up late at night crying about it.”
On the other hand, there’s unintentionally ironic dialogue, such as when there’s an ironic contrast between word and deed…
  •  Strasser thinks he’s very much in control, but we can see otherwise.
…or an ironic contrast between what the character says and what the audience knows.
  • Ilsa says she’ll meet Rick at the train station, but we know that she won’t have the chance.
There are the pros and (potentially big) cons of having an ironic tone, which is the one type of irony that most stories shouldn’t have, although it can be a useful tool for certain very specific types of stories.
  • It’s tempting to say this movie has an ironic tone, because it’s full of cool, jaded sarcasm, but that’s not the way I use the term. This movie does not take a sarcastic attitude towards storytelling itself (as Blazing Saddles does, for instance) so I would say that it doesn’t have an ironic tone.
Finally, there are the thematic ironies that every story should have: The story’s ironic thematic dilemma, in which the story’s overall dilemma comes down to a choice of good vs. good (or bad vs. bad)…
  • Romantic love vs. love of country
…as well as several smaller ironic dilemmas along the way, in which your characters must consistently choose between goods, or between evils throughout your story.
  • It’s important to fight for freedom, but do you have any right to endanger someone’s life by asking them to come to a resistance meeting?
This will culminate in an ironic final outcome, separate from the ironic concept and the thematic dilemma.
  • Rick finds fulfillment by sending away the woman he loves.