Sunset Boulevard

Connect Care Commit: Sunset Boulevard

Our final movie! Next up: TV. I’ve realized that “Convince” doesn’t work because it’s referring to what the writer does, but not what the reader is supposed to do.

Why it might be hard to identify with Joe:
  • He’s miserable and maybe just doesn’t have what it takes. We believe Betty that he really doesn’t deserve the living he’s trying to make. In many ways, it’s only his self-deprecating voice-over that makes him sympathetic. Without it, he’d be pretty unbearable.
Connect
  • The details of the business are convincing: “Pretty simple to shoot, lots of outdoors stuff.”
Care
  • In the present, he’s been murdered. In the past, he’s broke and rejected by the world. He hears what Betty thinks of his script when she doesn’t realize he’s in the room. “It’s from hunger…A rehash of something that wasn’t very good to begin with.” When she meets him she says, “I’d always heard that you had some talent.” He replies, “That was last year, this year I’m trying to earn a living.”
Commit
  • He’s got a funny voice-over. He says of his own dead body, floating in a pool: “Poor dope, he always wanted a pool.” As he calls around for money, he tells us “I talked to a couple of ‘yes men’ at Metro. To me, they all said no.” He gets in a car chase to save his car (and livelihood), so that’s always likeable.
Five Es
  • Eat: No.
  • Exercise: No.
  • Economic Activity: He’s desperately trying to get a job.
  • Enjoy: No.
  • Emulate: He tries talking like a producer around the producers, to no avail.
Rise above
  • He’s desperate for any job. Even when he finally starts trying to get out from under his new boss, at the midpoint, it’s so he can work on a spec script with Betty. Only at the end does he decide to move back home and try to get his old reporter job back ...but it’s too late. 
High five a black guy
  • Nope
Kind
  • Nope

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Rulebook Casefile: One Power-Packed Scene in Sunset Boulevard

I’m in the process of reposting the Checklist Roadtests with better formatting and rewritten for Checklist v5, along with new thoughts on the movies. The new Sunset Boulevard Checklist is up, so let’s look at  one amazing scene from the beginning which establishing six different necessary elements of a great story, all at once.

Down-and-out screenwriter Joe Gillis is begging a Hollywood producer for work, so the producer (Mr. Sheldrake, a name that Wilder re-used later in The Apartment) calls in his assistant Betty to get the coverage on Joe’s latest script. She comes in to deliver it, not realizing that Joe himself is the other man in the room:
  • BETTY: Hello, Mr. Sheldrake. On that Bases Loaded. I covered it with a 2-page synopsis. (She holds it out) But I wouldn't bother.
  • SHELDRAKE: What's wrong with it?
  • BETTY: It's from hunger.
  • SHELDRAKE: Nothing for Ladd?
  • BETTY: Just a rehash of something that wasn't very good to begin with.
  • SHELDRAKE: I'm sure you’ll be glad to meet Mr. Gillis. He wrote it.
  • Betty turns towards Gillis, embarrassed.
  • SHELDRAKE: This is Miss Kramer.
  • BETTY: Schaefer. Betty Schaefer. And right now I wish I could crawl into a hole and pull it in after me.
  • GILLIS: If I could be of any help...
  • BETTY: I'm sorry, Mr. Gillis, but I just don't think it's any good. I found it flat and banal.
  • GILLIS: Exactly what kind of material do you recommend? James Joyce? Dostoesvsky?
  • SHELDRAKE: Name dropper.
  • BETTY: I just think pictures should say a little something.
  • GILLIS: Oh, you're one of the message kids. Just a story won't do. You'd have turned down Gone With the Wind.
  • SHELDRAKE: No, that was me. I said, Who wants to see a Civil War picture?
  • BETTY: Perhaps the reason I hated Bases Loaded is that I knew your name. I'd always heard you had some talent.
  • GILLIS: That was last year. This year I'm trying to earn a living.
So just in this one small exchange we get:
  • The hero’s longstanding personal problem (which he’s aware of): He’s broke and disrespected.
  • The hero’s internal flaw (which he’s not fully aware of yet): He’s lost his soul and sold out his talent.
  • The hero’s social humiliation: This scene shows the value of the unintentional humiliation. It’s always good to have less open antagonism in a story, so it’s great to have the hero find out what people really think about him accidentally without anybody having to directly confront him. (This is also a way to include the dreaded “Do you know what your problem is” scene in a non-grating way. She doesn’t want to tell him and he doesn’t want to hear, but it simply happens accidentally.)
  • An assurance that, even though he’s got big flaws, he still has enough skills to root for. He’s not just a loser. He’s got potential to live up to.
  • An early “I understand you” moment with the love interest: Usually this comes much later in the story, but sometimes it comes early and also serves as the social humiliation.
  • We even end on a false goal and false statement of philosophy! It’s tempting in these scenes to have the hero be humbled, admit to his flaws, and vow to change over the course of the story, but it’s always better if he tries to reject the criticism and double down on his flaws until much later in the story.
And the fact that all six of these are established in one scene demonstrates another rule: It would be so easy to have six different scenes to establish these six elements. The result would be a screenplay that was clearly too long, but hard to cut down because every element felt essential. The trick is always to hit multiple beats at the same time in one small scene and still feel effortless. As in so many other things, Wilder is the master.
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Straying From the Party Line: Right and Wrong in Sunset Boulevard

One last note about Sunset Boulevard...
Here’s another question that got a “no” from Sunset Boulevard (and relates to what we were discussing last week.): It doesn’t create its own independent sense of right and wrong.

What’s an example of a “dated” movie? Many would cite something like Easy Rider, but I would disagree. Yes, it’s entirely a product of its time, and deals with topics  that don’t concern us much today, but it doesn’t make false assumptions about how we’ll react to the things we’re seeing. In fact, Easy Rider feels startlingly contemporary: it assumes, presciently, that the hippie movement is doomed, and the drug culture will enrich the dealers without liberating the users. If you told me that the movie was a period piece that was made last year, I wouldn’t be that surprised.

So am I saying that works won’t date if they’re cynical? No, cynical works can date too, if they’re cynical in a dated way. Look at another movie from the time, I Love You Alice B. Toklas, which assumes that we’ll find we’ll instinctively identify with a businessman’s mix of revulsion at hippie guys and lust for “free-love” hippy girls.

To me, a work is dated when it assumes that we’ll have reactions that modern audiences won’t have. This is one big reason why stories have to create their own sense of right and wrong, instead of relying on the sense that the audience brings with them…because otherwise you can’t know how later audiences are going to feel.

Sunset Boulevard has aged well, overall, but it does contain some dated aspects. It assumes that we’ll have an inherent revulsion at the idea that a man might benefit from the largesse of his girlfriend (and underneath the surface of that is a discomfort at the very existence of independently-wealthy women.) Of course, in modern America, many wives and girlfriends are the breadwinners, so we don’t see the problem.  Sunset Boulevard just assumes that this is wrong, but it doesn’t make it wrong.  As a result, it’s hard for a modern viewer to identify with Joe’s sense of humiliation.

Last week, in the comments, we talked about the dangerous notion of “human nature”. Over the last three decades, scholars have shied away from this term, fearing that it is hopelessly knotted up with racist and misogynist assumptions. Some say that the only way to purge those assumptions is to reject the entire notion of human nature, and declare all peoples, places, and times to be independent entities, without any universal behavior patterns or values.

But I feel that it’s necessary for fiction writers to continue to grapple with the notion of human nature. I feel that it’s our job to pick apart that tricky knot, snip away the dated assumptions and identify the truly universal threads that underlie all human behavior, such as the Kubler-Ross arc that unites “Gilgamesh” with Groundhog Day, despite the wildly different times and places in which those works were composed.
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Rulebook Casefile: Parallel Characters in Sunset Boulevard

In Brian MacDonald’s book “Invisible Ink”, he introduces the concept of clones, characters in the hero’s life who represent possible outcomes, either as cautionary tales or as potential role models. I refer to such characters as parallel characters.

In Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, what happens if burnt-out screenwriter Joe Gillis stays with deranged ex-screen-star Norma Desmond? He has his answer in the form of Max, her ex-husband who has now been reduced to the role of butler and chauffer, forced to watch her pursue younger men. (And don’t forget another version of that outcome: When Joe first arrives she’s arranging the burial of her longtime pet monkey, insisting that he be buried right there on the grounds, even if that’s against the law.)

So what happens if he tries to leave her? She’s writing a screenplay about Salome, who demands the head of John the Baptist by doing the dance of the seven veils. Later, when Norma’s dancing with Joe, she throws her own veil on the floor.

And then there’s the ultimate parallel character: Norma herself. Joe tells us that his goal was always to be successful enough in Hollywood to get himself a pool, and then he meets a superstar that has one…but at what price? If he finds success, will he end up like her?

But wait, what about Betty Schaefer, the idealistic young screenwriter who wants to work with him? That’s the one character he wants to emulate, but it’s hopeless. The most heartbreaking line in the movie is when Joe sadly says to Betty, “What a wonderful thing to be 22.” That’s when he realizes: She’s not a possible future for him, he’s a possible future for her: the cautionary tale about the danger of burn-out.

When Joe tells Norma, “There’s nothing wrong with being 50, as long as you don’t try to be 25,” he’s giving her the best advice she’s ever gotten, but he’s really telling himself something: he can’t start over with Betty. He can’t pretend that he still believes, because then he’d be just as deluded as Norma, and Betty would become his Joe, forced to maintain his illusions.

Even if he wanted to, Joe doesn’t have the talent to become Norma, so that leaves Max, the monkey, or John the Baptist. In this faces of these parallel characters, he sees all of his potential fates. For better or for worse, he chooses the third.

Of course, there is another parallel character hovering over the film. Joe never specifically mentions him, but we can infer his existence: the old man who had the desk across from him when he wrote for the Dayton Evening Post, before he left for Hollywood. Joe has spent the last ten years fleeing from that fate, but now he realizes that he’d be lucky to end up in that man’s shoes, if only he could make it out that gate…

Wilder himself never stopped dreaming of his comeback: in the 21 years between his last movie in 1981 and his death in 2002, he still went in to his office at the studio everyday and sat at his desk from 9 to 5, talking vaguely about projects that never came to fruition. Why didn’t he simply retire at some point, take his millions and start living the good life?

In the face of Norma Desmond, Joe sees the true tragedy of money-hungry America: Those who achieve the most are those for whom nothing is ever enough…which means that the successful are even more miserable than the unsuccessful. Joe finally realizes that he doesn’t want it enough…and that’s a good thing, because there’s no middle ground between not wanting it enough and wanting it too much. You have to choose one or the other…while you still have time left to choose.
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Straying From the Party Line # 12: Sunset Boulevard

Deviation: The narration is wall-to-wall, describing too much of what we can already see, and talking too much about what it all means.

The Potential Problem: This is a visual medium. You should show and not tell. And telling us what it means denies us the chance to figure that out for ourselves, which is far more meaningful.

Does the Movie Get Away With It? Yes and no. It’s so well written and well-delivered that it’s hard to mind too much, but it becomes exhausting at time, such as when they’re watching a movie and Joe tells us:
  • “Two or three times a week, Max would haul up that enormous oil painting that was had been presented to her by some Nevada chamber of commerce and we’d see a movie, right there in her living room. So much nicer than going out, she’d say. The plain fact was that she was afraid of that world outside, afraid that it would remind her that time had passed. They were silent movies, and Max would run the projector, which was just as well, it kept him from giving us an accompaniment on that wheezing organ. She’d sit very close to me, and she’d smell of tube roses, which was not my favorite perfume, not by a long shot. Sometimes she’d clutch my arm or my hand, forgetting she was my employer, just becoming a fan, excited about that actress up there on the screen. I guess I don’t have to tell you who the star was. They were always her pictures. That was all she wanted to see.”
There are a few things here we wouldn’t know without narration: the smell, how often this would happen, etc, but there are so many things that we can see just fine for ourselves: that they would watch movies in her living room, that Max would run the projector, that Norma would grab his arm, that it was her on the screen (he says he doesn’t have to tell us, but then he tells us anyway!)

Wilder is failing moviemaking 101, but, undeniably, this movie is a beloved classic. Everybody loves it, including myself, so the hard-and-fast rules of screenwriting seem to fail here. Why?
  • First and foremost, the wit. Super-sharp details like “presented to her by some Nevada chamber of commerce” make us happy to listen, even if we don’t need to hear it all.
  • In some sense, the narration is Wilder’s solution to another potential problem: the passive protagonist. Ideally, Joe would be confronting Norma on the ghoulishness of this spectacle, but he’s too passive to show a shred of outward protest, so he confides in us instead.
  • But the biggest factor that saves the narration is this: Joe is trying to process what it all means, and he certainly shows more perspective in his voiceover than he does in his actions, but ultimately even the voiceover fails to grasp the full pity of the situation.
Joe thinks he can interpret it all for us, but he misses a lot of the symbolism. He never says that he’s her new monkey, or that she’s Salome and he’s John the Baptist. He never speculates on the extent of Norma’s true madness, like we do. Because the voiceover, too, has a limited perspective, it leaves the audience some breathing room.
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The Ultimate Story Checklist: Sunset Boulevard

Updated to the sixth and final checklist!
Washed-up screenwriter Joe Gillis, on the run from repo men, hides out at the crumbling mansion of ex-silent-screen-star Norma Desmond, helping her write a terrible screenplay about Salome. He discovers that her butler Max von Mayerling is actually her ex-husband. She pitches Salome to Cecil B. DeMille, but he turns her down. Norma falls in love with Joe, but he sneaks out to work on a new screenplay with young studio reader Betty Schaefer. Norma finally shoots Joe dead and he falls into her pool. DeMille has to come coax Norma into turning herself in by saying “We’re ready for your close-up.”
PART #1: CONCEPT 17/19
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
 A dead screenwriter tells us how he  became the kept boy of a psychotic ex-silent-screen-goddess and tried to get away.
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
 Yes, The nation’s most glamorous people are deluded lowlifes, etc.
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
 Yes.
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
 Yes.  There’s very little plot.
Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
 Yes, Joe
Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily life? 
 Yes.
Does the story present a unique relationship?
 Yes.
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
 Various, as his goals change.  First the repo men, then Max, then Betty, then Norma.
Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
 Yes, his greatest fear and an ironic fulfillment of his desire for a pool.
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
 Not really.  He under-reacts to the horror of his situation, right up until his death (even after that, in his nonchalant postmortem narration).  He doesn’t even noticeably react to being shot.
Does this challenge become something that is the not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?
 Yes, working for Norma is hard to want to do, because of his self-respect, and romancing Betty is hard to want to do, because she’s engaged to his friend.   
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
 No, Betty is trying harder to save him than he is to save himself. He cannot solve the problem, and doesn’t try very hard.
Does the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?
 Yes, he finally tells Norma the truth about his situation, and it kills him.
The Hook: Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?
Does the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre?
 Pretty much.  The movie goes down easy, despite its unusual elements: it’s enjoyably funny and creepy throughout.
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
 Yes, many: a monkey funeral (Wilder told his cinematographer to “use the standard monkey funeral set-up”), a silent vamp turned into a vampire, essentially. The backlot, etc.
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
 Yes, many.  The floating corpse, the monkey funeral, the whole set-up, the final scene.
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
 Yes, the fact that he agrees to be a gigolo, which was totally shocking at the time. 
Is the story marketable without revealing the surprise?
 Yes.
Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
 Yes.
PART #2: CHARACTER 21/22
Believe: Do we recognize the hero as a human being?
Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or kind, or oddball, or out-of-character, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)
 Yes, he’s funny with the repo men. “You say the cutest things.”
Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
 Yes, but much more by attitude than action.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
 Yes, a nice guy and a good-but-not-good-enough writer.
Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
 Yes, he’s really hollow inside. 
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
 Yes, B-movie clichés. (Yes, although Ed Sikov points out in his DVD commentary that Joe sometimes veers into Austrian-Jewish syntax that doesn’t match his Ohio-goy background, as when he accuses his agent of “making with the golf sticks”)
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
 Yes, bitter cynicism.
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
 Yes, slipperiness, he deflects all conflict.
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
 Yes, he wants to keep his car.
Care: Do we feel for the hero?
Does the hero start out with a shortsighted or wrongheaded philosophy (or accept a false piece of advice early on)?
 “I heard you were one of the ones with talent.” “That was last year.  This year I’m trying to make a living.”
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
 Yes, sell a script, save his car from the repo men.
Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a hidden, private fear?
 Open: not getting work. Hidden: that he’s a hired monkey.
Is the hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?
 Yes, thought he thinks he isn’t in either way.
Does the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)
 Yes, he’s easily corruptible and passive.
Invest: Can we trust the hero to tackle this challenge?
…Is that great flaw (ironically) the natural flip-side of a great strength we admire?
 Yes, he has a devastating cynical wit, and a little writing ability.
Is the hero curious?
 Yes, he’s always pushing for more info about Norma. 
Is the hero generally resourceful?
 Yes, he cleverly avoids the repo men.
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
 No.  He stands for nothing.  He has no self-image.
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
 Yes, everyone else (Norma, Max, Betty) is still enamored of the glamour of Hollywood.  Only he sees through it.
…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
 Yes, he has a razor-sharp rapier wit.
Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
 Yes, he’s trying to keep his car.
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
 Somewhat.  He can go at any time. 
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
 Yes, he gets both romances using his screenwriting abilities.
PART #3: STRUCTURE (If the story is about the solving of a large problem) 19/21
1st Quarter: Is the challenge laid out in the first quarter?
When the story begins, is the hero becoming increasingly irritated about his or her longstanding social problem (while still in denial about an internal flaw)?
 Yes, he’s tired of being broke and unemployed.
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
 Yes, he gets humiliated by a script reader.
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
 Yes, he finds an aging actress who needs a screenwriter. 
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
 Not really.  He tells us that he’s dubious, but he makes little attempt to leave once the offer is made. 
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
 In a relatively passive way: he accepts that they’ve brought his bags over. 
2nd Quarter: Does the hero try the easy way in the second quarter?
Does the hero’s pursuit of the opportunity quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
 Yes, Norma won’t let him write a good script.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
 Yes, he tries to finish the script as quickly as possible.
Does the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?
 Yes, he gets away and finds that the reader, Betty, now wants to work with him.  He thinks he can have it both ways. 
Does the easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a safe space and/or sheltering relationship?
 Yes, he finds out that Norma has attempted suicide.  This lures him back into his lair, and cuts off his access to Betty.
3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
 Not at first, he becomes an aimless gigolo, but then he reconnects with Betty and begins to sneak out to see her at night.
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
 Yes, he realizes that Norma is his enemy and Betty is his real salvation.
Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
 Somewhat.  Artie proposes marriage to Betty.  Norma catches him.
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
 Yes, when he realizes that he can’t lead Betty on. 
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
 Yes, when he realizes that Betty wants to leave Artie for him. 
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
 Yes, in telling her, “I’d take it in a second, but it’s a little too dressy for sitting behind a copy desk in Dayton, Ohio.”
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
 Somewhat.  He decides to leave Norma, but that seems easy. 
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
 Somewhat, when he starts sneaking out.  He doesn’t really become proactive until he walks out, with fatal consequences.  Perhaps he intended to tell Betty, or leave Norma, but…
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
 Yes, Norma calls Betty before he can confess.
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
 Yes, Betty comes over to Norma’s. 
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
 Well, shortly before. He finally finds his self-respect, then gets killed. 
Is there an epilogue/ aftermath/ denouement in which the challenge is finally resolved (or succumbed to), and we see how much the hero has changed (possibly through reversible behavior)
 Earlier in the climax, when he finally has the strength to resist Norma, even when she threatens suicide. 
PART #4: SCENEWORK (Joe is shown up to see Norma, who assumes that he’s there to plan her monkey’s funeral, but when he explains that he’s a screenwriter, she hires him to rewrite her screenplay for Salome instead.) 17/20
The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
Were tense and/or hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction established beforehand?
 Max’s “If you need any help with the coffin, call me,” has got him worried. 
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
 No, it starts at the beginning.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
 Yes, it’s a glamorous woman’s bedroom with a mysterious corpse under a blanket.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
 Yes, he just wants to get out of there.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
 Yes, the monkey funeral, the organ, etc.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
 Somewhat, When will the scary butler do to him?  When will the real monkey undertaker arrive?
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character through emotional reactions?
 Yes, it launches the plot and introduces the co-star. Her feelings are hurt by his disrespect, and she’s able to hurt him a little bit in return.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
 Yes, we want him to uses Norma to get what he wants.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
 Yes, he wants to get of there, she wants a monkey funeral.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
 For her: Open, she wants a new screenwriter.  Suppressed: she wants a new lover.  For him: Open: He wants to get out of there, Suppressed: He needs work.
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
 Yes.
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
 No, they’re pretty open about them.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
 Yes, he subtly mentions that he’s a writer, knowing that she’ll take the bait.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
 Yes, lots of reblocking, She keeps beckoning and then repelling him, but they never quit touch, except exchanging the object. 
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
 Yes, he takes her script (which is her heart)
The Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?
As a result of this scene, does at least one of the scene partners end up doing something that he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began?
 Yes, she decides to hire him and he agrees to stay. 
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
 Yes, he starts by mocking her dead monkey, then becomes her new monkey. 
Are previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?
 Previous: whose house is this? New: He says he later found out a lot more about Max and Norma
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
 We have a dread that Joe’s scheme to extract money out of Norma will probably fail as much as his other schemes, but with worse consequences. (Partially because we’ve already seen him dead in her pool!)
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
 No.  It could have ended on this line: “By then I’d begun concocting a little plot of my own…”  with the implied question of  “What plot?”, but instead he let’s Joe’s narration spool on and reveal his plan, which we then see him enact. Wilder, despite being a master screenwriter, always had a bad habit of repeated beats and over-explained plots.   
PART #5: DIALOGUE 14/16
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
 Yes, even Norma, even Max, even DeMille.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
 Yes, very much so.  He thinks he sees all the angles, but we see how deluded he really is.
Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
 Very much so.  The love interests are both cheating on others. 
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
 Yes, very much so.
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they wouldn’t do?
 Very much so. Betty gets Norma’s name off of Joe’s cigarette case, Norma reads Betty’s name off of Joe’s script.  They get to confront each other without him having to admit anything.  Max never answers any questions.   
Do the characters interrupt each other often?
 Very much so.  He and Norma never seem to hear a thing the other says. 
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
Does the dialogue capture the jargon and tradecraft of the profession and/or setting?
 Yes, very much so. 
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?
 No and yes and yes.  They pretty much all have the same metaphor family: Hollywood, Default personality trait: Norma: Delusional, Max: officious, Betty: idealistic but ambitious, Argument strategy: Max: ignores all protests, lets silence speak volumes.  Norma: emotional blackmail.
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
 Yes.
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
 Yes, very much so.
Are there minimal commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
 Mostly.  It’s a little writerly, despite being so slangy.   
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
 No, Joe’s a writer and loves pithy turns of phrase: “an older woman who’s well to do, a younger man who’s not doing too well.”
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
 Joe and Betty have two-way polarization: bitter cynicism vs. fresh-faced idealism.  Norma, despite her extremity, is 3-dimensional. 
Strategic: Are certain dialogue scenes withheld until necessary?
Does the hero have at least one big “I understand you” moment with a love interest or primary emotional partner?
Yes, between he and Betty talking about their pasts.
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
 Somewhat, we get a few big info-dumps, but Max’s story drips out nicely.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
 Yes, two in a row, when Joe confronts Betty and then Norma.
PART #6: TONE 10/10
Genre: Does the story tap into pre-established expectations?
Is the story limited to one genre (or multiple genres that are merged from the beginning?)
 Yes, gothic melodrama mixed with Hollywood satire.
Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
 It’s an odd mix of elements, noir, haunted house (the wheezing organ), etc., but it works.
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
 Yes, our hard-boiled narrator is killed and the murderer is arrested, but it’s all oddly funny.
Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
 Yes, pitch-black comedy. Yes, Joe doesn’t lose his flippantness, even after death, and Norma remains campily entertaining, even after she kills Joe.
Framing: Does the story set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the story?
 Yes, how does Joe end up in that pool?  (Sikov claims that most people don’t realize that’s Joe until the end, but I think most people do.) 
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
 Yes, a flashforward and narration.
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
 Yes, many: the monkey, John the Baptist, Max.
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
 Yes, Max keeps hinting at his past.  The wind in the pipe organ plays horror music on its own. The narration keeps hinting at a dark ending. 
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
 Yes, he won’t live there and then he will, he won’t kiss Norma and then he will, he can’t leave and then he can, etc.
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
 Almost.  We find out how he ended up in the pool, but there’s one really big scene still to come. 
PART 7: THEME 12/14
Difficult: Is the meaning of the story derived from a fundamental moral dilemma?
Can the overall theme be stated in the form of an irreconcilable good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
 Yes, success vs. dignity
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
 Implicit: Can you take a writing job without becoming a kept monkey?
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
 Yes, Joe and Betty are both cheating, everyone feeds Norma’s violent delusions in order to spare her feelings. 
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
 Yes. 
Does the story have something authentic to say about this type of setting (Is it based more on observations of this type of setting than ideas about it)?
 Very much so.  It’s filled with real details.  Wilder was not only a screenwriter, but he had been also been a dime-a-dance gigolo back in Vienna: Talk about writing what you know!
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
 Somewhat.  (The topical references are all local: the betrayal of ex-silent stars, the Black Dahlia murder) There’s no hint of postwar malaise of anything like that, but it’s hinted that super-rich monsters like Norma were created by the lack of an income tax before the war, and the new 90% top tax bracket has relegated them to the past. 
Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
 Yes. There’s no good way to get rich.  Joe is going to go home to be a copywriter in Dayton at the end.
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
 Yes, there’s no getting away from this. 
Subtle: Is the theme interwoven throughout so that it need not be discussed often?
Do many small details throughout subtly and/or ironically tie into the thematic dilemma?
 Yes, the fact that her screenplay is about Salome, who got John the Baptist’s head on a plate by doing the dance of the seven veils (note that Norma drops her veil on the floor while dancing with Joe.)  The fact that Joe and Betty pitch woo on a phony back lot.  His watch chain catches on the doorknob as he leaves, holding him back.
Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
 Yes, his car, her car, her manuscript, the pool, the gun, the spotlights.
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimately irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
 Yes, dignity is somewhat better than success.
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
 Yes, he gets his pool, she gets her return to the screen, and Max even gets to direct again, but all in the most ironic ways possible.
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
 It’s fairly tidy, but one big question is never answered, though: Did Joe decide to leave Norma before or after he sent Betty away?
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
 No, he returns from the dead to spell it out for us. Wilder was not the type to leave anything unsaid. 
Final Score: 110 out of 122
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