Sunday, November 18, 2012

Closing Your Loop: "Looper" as Cultural Mythology

In the wake of digressions on time travel logic -- few founded, most misguided, all irrelevant --  herein the mythic level of metaphor and theme can be given breathing room to assume its rightful reign. There is a message both timely and eternal at the heart of Looper, as haunting is it is beautiful:

A man who hoards silver grows to step past his gold.

Its science-fiction narrative conceit is merely a springboard for a unique character dynamic.  Just as young Joe must face his older self, so too must we face our future selves in every decision we make. (Hopefully never so dire for us as depicted for him.)

Old Joe is an extrapolated version of his character’s primary flaw: the isolated greed of personal attachment. Young Joe to his silver, and Old Joe to his murdered wife. A damning loneliness and spiritual emptiness lies in our refusal to let go. Furthering the immediacy and dramatic potency of his ultimate decision, their entire conflict acts as an externalization of his internal dilemma.

There is the beauty of Looper’s seemingly effortless structure. The concept itself fuels the interpretive connectivity of its own themes and ideas. By pitting a character, literally, against himself, the dramatic playground is opened up for thematic discussions and conflict-based metaphorical imagery to be brought naturally, inevitably to the fore.  It is in this way that the pertinent mythological elements are delivered. Decisive character action demonstrably implies theme through an escalating conflict of ideas.

What is it that so changes him? What, exactly, does he save? The child he gives his life for, Cid, and his mother, Sara, are broken. Their damaged relationship, as dramatically extended to the world of the story, will grow into an ugly, mass-murdering threat. The thematic danger is not the terror of a future killer, but the imbalance of an unreconciled future.  They are as isolated from each other as Joe is with his silver. His intervention in their lives allows for a mutually vital catharsis.

Cid parallels Joe’s own past, a yet untouched innocence for which he is still hopeful. Old Joe is the looming, unchanged future, frozen in his erred ways. Young Joe is the active present, still able to make a change and divert these circled paths. In his final moments of revelation, he does.

We must all close our loops by cutting off the cycles of behavior that birth our undesirable future selves. Blunderbuss to our hearts, we face them metaphorically every day as Joe literally faced his. Walk past the gold. Save the kid. Close the loop.

Monday, October 15, 2012


Literary adaptation has been a prominent bedfellow of cinema since the earliest days of the medium. From silent shorts and the rousing success both commercially and creatively of Gone With The Wind (1939) to the forthcoming Cloud Atlas (2012), the viability of novels as a springboard for cinematic adaptation is given frequent opportunity to be questioned, criticized, and derided.

While contentious opinions could fill infinite tomes on the specific viabilities of individual stories, a broader question worth asking, but seldom asked, is: what, specifically,  is it about a story or work that makes it “unfilmable?” (The phrase so popularly chosen.)

A survey of published criticism shows a trend toward the vastness of a work as a primary indication of its status of filmability, be it in sheer scope or number of characters and their associated plotlines. While this is an entirely understandable assertion of the difficulty of the adaptive process, no measure of difficulty alone – especially considering the pace of technological advancement – can feasibly condemn a work to the dregs of impossible depiction. (Historically, difficulties of scale certainly presented a much larger degree of impossibility, admittedly.)

This ultimate fallacy of logic can produce a torturous bevy of criticism of adapted works reduced to a mathematical tally; a run-on list of what percentage of the original content was preserved in the conversion process. This attitude treats adaptation as if it were translation. While certain interstitial mediums have appeared allowing for a more translation-like approach to adaptation (inherently visual mediums such as comic books, interactive games, etc.), the process of adapting a piece of textual prose into an effective cinematic narrative would scarcely benefit from a literal translation.

Rather, the true measure of a work’s cinematic incompatibility should rest on its voice. It’s point of view. It’s narrative style. It’s thematic treatment. Cinema is a medium of visual depiction. Of ideas not spoken, but implied through action, not unlike its theatrical predecessor, but all the less talky. (Despite the chronology of its development, in which its purist iteration may indeed have been its first: silent.)

Whether or not a text is fundamentally adaptable rests on the degree to which its drama is played out on the actions of its characters. Setting can be enhanced for the visual pallet. The actions themselves rearranged for optimal effectiveness. However, if the core themes and movements of the text’s drama lie in an internalized rumination rather than the physical setting of the story, adaption will have to take on an active role in externalizing the conflict for the sake of cinematic depiction.

This means a “favorite scene” might not make the “cut.” The term “cut” itself is almost objectionable considering the artistry with which a story must be repainted in adaptation. Having a laundry list of desired elements is no way to walk into any experience. Assess what is there, not what is absent.

Be open to a radical new form of the story you love, and you may find that what you see on screen is truer to the heart of the author’s intent than the words themselves were able to convey. For in the author’s death post-publication, the work is the world’s and will be reshaped in their image. 

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Passive Character Arcs

I have unavoidably realized, through the viewing of several recent blockbusters, that simply having a character arc is not enough. Ending somewhere other than where you started is usually necessary, but on its own is insufficient.

A character must drive the story with their choices as an active participant in the unfolding narrative. Necessity for climactic change should not be thrust onto the character, but the result of their decisive action.

An inactive lead gives the work a feeling of disparateness where the plot exists on one plane, and the character on another. Character and plot should be inexorably bound together in their conception. They should feel absolutely mated and build causally toward a unified conclusion. Each should inform and feed the other.

Obviously, there are plots that will require a measure of passive motivation on the part of their protagonist, but this should always build to the eventual necessary action of the character, lest the plot or base concept become the true undefined protagonist in the eyes of the audience.

This is a dictum to be considered in large strokes, as depictions of wonder and surprise often live on the character's initial inability to react or lack of understanding. This is always most effectively used, however, as a means to an end. Working toward greater action that comes through understanding or awakening.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Structure Smucksure

People talk about structure a lot. This is a good thing. However, the way they talk about it seems to be very Act-centric. Three Acts. Beginning, Middle, End. Intro, Conflict, Resolution.

That's all well and good, but it seems to be all they talk about. Structure deals with more than the number of acts you have and at what point prior to an act break you have a "plot point." This becomes even more problematic in light of the fact that this Three Act Structure is a prominent but still arguable one. Shakespeare? Greek Drama? Five acts. Most musicals have only two.

The truth? It's all the same. These X-act structures are far from exact. (Forgive me.) They are merely templates to place over a work and aid in analysis. Delineating something into observable acts allows you more convenient points of reference. Once these structures became prominently acknowledged, you can certainly bet that writers began thinking in terms of X-acts in their own writing.

These are, however, masks and frames surrounding the common dramatic situations that can be combined in infinitely creatives ways to allow for a dramatically succinct and balanced experience that varies depending on the relative advantages of the medium its being presented in.

Art is always trying to reach for dramatic content that is more stimulating to our innate humanity than that which is found in nature. This can be found in three and five act structures, but it isn't the acts that are bringing the drama. It's the way the characters interface with the plot to present a discernible theme. Some incredibly terrible screenplays can follow the guidelines of these structures to a tee, and still fail.

There comes a time when act breaks and plot points must be set aside, and the focus of the writer must be turned to the specific interactions of his characters and how their conflict is telling of the creator's intent. This is where the craft comes in.

Friday, June 19, 2009

A Brief "Ghost Busters" Analysis.

I'd like to talk about Ghost Busters chronologically, addressing events roughly in the order they are presented in the film. I endeavor to touch mainly upon narrative structure, character arc, and thematic content. 

Ghost Busters opens on a conceptually instigating event, presenting a world in which the presence of ghosts, while perhaps not widely accepted, is plausible and established.

The first post-title sequence establishes Peter's nonchalance about the subject matter. He treats it with little respect, using the business to get women. His skeptical jester-like approach to the business of paranormal occurrences is in contrast to Ray, who is an overzealous believer.

While it may initially seem that Peter's character is an attempt to infuse comedy into an otherwise straightforward paranormal adventure film, I'd argue that the balanced relationship between these three is constructed to perfectly exploit comedic archetypes. Every Jokester needs a straight man, and it is the contrast out of which the comedy is based.

This is also utilized to uniquely portray three distinct comedy types. Peter is sarcastic wit, Ray is slapstick (overzealous, exuberant expression), while Egon is obviously deadpan.

This may speak to the enduring nature of the film. As comedy is the most subjective of genres, it is most ingenious to appeal to such a wide variety of viewer mindsets. I believe this to be an unintentional benefit of a decision made for reasons other than audience appeal, but still note worthy.

The unabashed excitement of Ray and the scientific deadpan of Egon may feel unrelatable for the audience, allowing Peter's skepticism to be their way in. He is the everyman, who can be considered a representative of a shared character arc of the Ghostbusters.

At the beginning of the Ghostbusters' journey to self to self sufficiency, dramatically we switch point of view to introduce Dana. As this is directly tied to the main story arc (as seen in the commercial on TV and the forthcoming paranormal occurrence) the tangent avoids becoming a distraction or detraction.

It is traditional if not preferable to displace singular point of view for the sake of establishing the antagonist. This is exactly as done in the first Dana scene with the refrigerator appearance of Zuul. No time is wasted in reconciling the two points of view. After Janine's casual introduction, Dana comes in to converge with the Ghostbusters' storyline.

The origin develops full force in the team's first bust. Their social or relationship must be put to a practical test. This sort of displacement is always rife with comedic potential. (Potential I'd argue is fully and satisfactorily met.)

The montage following the Hotel bust moves us beyond origin and back into the realm of the immediate conflict, but not before introducing an often overlooked side-character.

Winston is a hired hand, a practical man. He can be seen to represent a sliver of the Ghostbuster's relationship with normal folk now that they are an established business. "I've got hundreds of people trying to abuse me!" Winston is the counter point to the general ambivalence and rejection shown by the public.

Winston is also religious. He brings a wider, ontological perspective beyond the specific intricacies of their business, as the trio tend to focus on. He offers this most appropriately in the latter half of the movie, post origin shift to main conflict.

There is another antagonist cut away with Dana and the Terror Dogs, then a point of view change to Louis which is comedic, clearly, but can be justified as establishing sympathy for this side character this is swept into the main conflict. It eases him into prominence.

There are sexual connotations to the "Key Master" / "Gate Keeper" names. It is interesting to note that the mythology depicted in the movie treats human fornication as the only physically transcendental act that can breach the ethereal to allow the antagonist entity into our physical realm. This mythology is sound and widely precedented.

Let's not forget Walter Peck from the Environmental protection agency. His function in the movie is as a single representative of a shared entity, centralized against Venkman. I find this to be a wise move for audience clarity and ease of reception.

Peck vs. Venkman represents the greater issue. They personify the subtle underlying theme: Bureaucracy is rendered helpless in the face of the unknown, and must defer to ingenuity of the individual.

The individual in this case is of course the Ghostbusters. The Bureaucracy, beyond its personification in Peck, is displayed in many forms: the ineptitude of the government AND religion in the face of Gozer's threat. ("I think it's a sign from God, but don't quote me on that.)

When you elevate a character to the fore, as Peter is here, they must also be assigned their own arc to justify this narrative shift of priority. He is, with his personal journey from sarcastic skeptic to sarcastic acceptance, which in turn unifies the Ghostbusters at film's end, linking his character functions in an inextricable way. (Personal/individual and representative/communal.) "See you on the other side Ray." His disposition toward the prospect of Dana's death is especially telling of this attitude change.

You see, Peter's horndoggedness is his way into sincerity. His care for Dana and what happens to her forces him into a change of priority. This aspect of his character plus her place in the story naturally instigate his ascent. His initial unwillingness is overcome. "See you on the other side, Ray."

So Peter functions as both single character with central journey and as a representative of the greater Ghostbusters conflict. This justifies later team-based point of view changes as members disperse. (Egon and possessed Louis, Ray and Winston, Peter and possessed Dana.)

In these sequences it is most evident that comedy is never sacrificed in the face of the paranormal mythology presented. They are constantly intertwined and play off each other, thriving unified. Symbiotic. (ex: Louis's Vince Babble.)

Some may argue that this interpretation is invalid based on the fact that it was not likely the intent of its creators, who were by all accounts focused on making a paranormal adventure comedy. Regardless of intent, a subtle theme and definite character arc are supported by the film in its implications of priority in the conflict depicted. And it is glorious, indeed.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Tonight I'm gonna SCORE.

Apologies, reader (there's got to be ONE), for the lack of updates. I've just finished work on the feature I've been writing, and it's been a great process. I broke the story fairly early, and the completion was a great time. Now I just have to make the damn thing. (oh, that's all?)

More on that later.

For now, I'd like to think about something that's been on my mind the last couple of days, both in my preparation for this feature project, and in general discourse.


Now, what I am not terribly interested in is the politics of the process. "Ghost Writers" and "Guild Rules" and "Awards Eligibility" are all fine topics, but they run into a dead end conversationally. And after all, my interest lies mostly in the craft, and less in the business.

I love film scores. Nothing gets me more excited than a pure cinema moment enhanced by a composer and musicians that have a perfect understanding of the picture. To me, that is the key: synthesis. I feel that a score is brilliant insofar as it works WITH the picture. There's nothing more distracting than an incongruous film score.

If the audience is UP HERE and the music is down there ... we have a problem. It's equally bad, perhaps more so, with the reverse. If the music is carrying a substandard sequence, the music can't save it. As with all other aspects of film production, a healthy collaboration and shared goals are necessary. All involved parties have to be making the same movie. They have to love the material, connect with it, and WANT to further it with their contribution.

This is true for actors, directors, anybody. If they feel themselves separate or even ABOVE the project, there are going to be blatant issues.

I've always seen the score as a sort of accompaniment. I know this is obvious, but I specifically mean a force that accompanies the audience on their journey. It can re-affirm the feeling you have towards a particular sequence, or the movie as a whole. It can cement an emotion, or be foreboding to an element that needs attention.

That being said, I am no musician. I admittedly know nothing of the mechanics of creating a score, and know that only in the most ideal of circumstances can true collaboration be achieved. But I'm just painting a picture of a goal; the ultimate. There is an infinite barrage of problems that can get in the way of this.

I think one of the major bumps in the road can be the simple preference the collaborating members have in the creative process. Some directors like to edit to music, when composers would naturally prefer a locked-down cut of the movie to score to. Personally, I'm not comfortable with either of those extremes, I think communication is key. That the composer should be in on the process from day one. He or she has to be invested with the material, and not a tacked-on component in post production.

Many great works have sprouted from just this type of process, and I hope that new technologies allow this freedom to continue and grow. This, to me, is the greatest aspect of advances in digital technologies of all kinds. (Audio, Picture, everything.) It is allowing (or at least paving the way for) a more fluid process. A more true or pure creative process. Less interruption between the painter and the brush.

These sorts of advances can add a degree of excellence in areas one might not expect. Take, for example, the motion capture process being experimented with by such filmmakers as Robert Zemekis (Polar Express, Beowulf) and James Cameron (the upcoming Avatar.) The degree of effectiveness or realism of this young process is debatable, but it provides a unique opportunity never before available in cinema.

Movies, by their nature, require a long production process. One of the great pieces of movie magic is simply believing all these events happen in sequence. Particularly difficult sequences can take months to complete. Think of the mindset of the actor! They must be a human bookmark! Segmenting their performance to snippets that must be edited to a coherent whole is a very, very difficult thing.

Now, with this Motion Capture, huge lengths of performance (10, 20, 30 minutes) could feasibly be captured without stopping. They'd be able to experience the un-interrupted joy of performance, for the first time in modern film. Then, LATER, the director takes these digitally captured performances, and chooses the camera angles, perfects the lighting, etc. Everything that actor would have to wait endless hours for ordinarily.

I set out to talk a bit about film score, and now look where we ended up!