Loss of Subtlety

Belieive it or not I'm walking on air...

Belieive it or not I'm walking on air...

Subtlety has escaped Hollywood. Hollywood, however, is a representation of what the market will bear. Market being the peeps. Us. What we’re likely to pay a whopping twelve bucks to watch.

To be more homogenous, movies must have:

• Action • Suspense • Romance • Mystery • Redemption • Revenge • Comic relief • Strong female lead • Coupled by a backward-thinking male lead who learns to love the strong female lead finally realizing that she’s his everlasting soul mate for all time and beyond • A chase scene either by foot, car, truck, or air, with shoot outs that lead to a climactic battle between God and Satan, where armies of orcs, elves, muggles, wizards, witches, followed by mere men and women, and a child who was born with a butterfly tattoo preordaining her to cure the virus that has threatened life as we know it and must complete a special training that will make him (wasn’t it a her?) nearly invincible (nearly because we have to have tension in our epic fog of a story) • And a Hollywood ending where the child cures Satan of his issues, and both God and Satan float off into the sunset • The End

Ebert and Scorsese

Ebert and Scorsese

One of the things I do is read reviews of movies, Roger Ebert being my favorite. They don’t have any bearing on what I watch. But I can learn a lot about story telling by people’s likes and dislikes, and they’re fairly common. As a story teller, the market is important to a certain point. But as J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyers has proven, good content creates the market. We see this in the explosion of wizardry and horromance in the media today.

I see you

I see you

When reviews are either good or bad cohesively, there may be some merit. On Fandango, I had looked up the times for Hereafter, directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Matt Damon. Part of the movie was filmed in San Francisco in an apartment building my friend lives in. So it was cool hearing stories of how filming went.

Fandango had a rating of yellow, meaning most of the people who saw the movie thought it was “so-so”. That’s the middle rating. But Jackass in 3D got a bright green rating, the top, a “must go”. A red means “oh no”, stay away or lose two hours of life you can never get back.

Most people complained Hereafter was slow and uneventful. But you can’t have a good story with substance based purely on the afterlife. You may point out Paranormal Activity, but it’s just cheap thrills. Would you stay in a house that haunted you for any length of time? I’m brave. But I ain’t that brave. And none of the Paranomal movies explored why they stayed or what issues being haunted brought up. It represents nothing. It's like going to a strip club, paying to get a hard-on, then walking home with with no relief.

Not that I know of those kinds of naughty, naughty things.

A good story with substance uses something as the backdrop, like the afterlife, to show case interpersonal issues. Hereafter does that from three different perspectives: a psychic who can communicate with the dead, a journalist who had a near death experience, and a boy who yearns for his dead twin.

Work it, work it

Work it, work it

A good example of backdrop is Casino Royale. I'm not a huge Bond fan. I never knew why until I started to study story. James Bond is a classic character. He's suave. He likes all women. He sleeps with all women he desires. He likes his drinks to be shaken, not stirred. He can get out of any situation. He's a master fighter, can wield any weapon made available, and is witty.

But as a character, he never changes.  He doesn't go from having no confidence to being confident. He doesn't realize the error of his ways. He doesn't learn to be loyal because he already is. He doesn't have any bad qualities.  Qualities that a writer can hang his hat on to change.

Except for one. He's emotionally detached to the women he's intimate with. He never falls in love. Then Vesper Lynd, played by Eva Green, shows up in Royale. She's confident, brash, reads Bond for who he is, and just as every bit competitive. Through their competitiveness, Bond falls in love with her. A huge change in both character and in the movie. When Vesper dies, he must struggle with the pain, something all humans go through. As a result, Casino Royale is one of the best reviewed Bond movies.

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What Happens Next?

A lot of teachers and instructors of story talk about tension and suspense. But they seem to accompany that with conflict. And conflict is pretty simple: want vs obstacles. When I attended David Freeman's Beyond Structure weekend seminar he explained tension and suspense the best: What happens next.

Think about it. You know that scene when the lone girl opens the door to the downstairs basement. A guttural sound grates against the darkness.

A normal person would be like, "Oh, hell no." Then slams the door locked.

But that's no fun.

The girl slowly places her foot down on the first step. It creaks. She dips her head but can't see through the darkness. She takes another step. Something below shuffles around. The step creaks as she takes another step.

Why is she doing this?!

Then we realize the steps are the split kind. The kind where someone can reach through and grab her ankles. I hate those! Every step she takes we see it from behind the stairs. Is someone or something going to grab her?

She continues down and is now in the bowels of the basement. That same guttural sound emanates from a black corner.

What she gonna do?

She heads for it.


"Yargh!" Her little brother jumps out and says, "You're it!"

Something similar happened to me this morning. I was taking the train to work. The smell of body odor permeated the seats, people were stuffed into every square inch of the train, a baby cried somewhere upfront. The train stopped and a rush of people offboarded. A flood of morning fresh air washed in.

Then a stale smell like jeans that had been worn for six months turned my nose. I looked up and a guy in what I describe as rags for sweatpants and a dirty hoodie stepped onboard. He had fingerless black cotton gloves. Face was shiny. He started singing, badly.

The doors closed and the train headed toward the city.

He saw the baby that cried earlier, walked over to him and his mother, and started baby talk in Spanish. He took out what looked like curly, shiny barbed wire without the barbs. And as he sang he straightened it. Cotton gloves seemed to protect him from cuts. The wire got longer and longer. His vigorousness made the wire swing above the baby, close to the mother. The mother turned her back to him, grabbed a hold of a handle, a quiet attempt to shield her baby boy.

The guy continued to straighten it, and the sharp wire shook over the stroller. Then he straightened one section, holding it as if to strangle someone. The train shook, and he stomped toward the mother to gain his balance, wire in hand. He looked down at the baby and spoke Spanish again, wire in hand. Mother still had her back to him. Every one snuck peaks at the scene. He started to straighten the wired as it got longer, it got closer to the stroller, to the mother.

The train stopped. Door slid open. And the man stepped off the train. Every one breathed a sigh of relief. Except a girl who got up because she had to get off at the same stop. She dragged her feet out.

That was intense because I wasn't sure why he was straightening the wire, or if he was just going to go postal and strangle someone.

In both the made up scene and what happened this morning the tension came from wondering what was going to happen next. Conflict, in story terms, didn't exist.