Film-o-matic

a blog about film and writing

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Bad Day at Black Rock

Bad Day at Black Rock is a short film with a powerful punch.  After a few months of not tending to this blog, it’s been a good movie to dip back in with.  (I did watch Apocalypse Now, …And Justice for All, All About My Mother, and Adaptation but did not write posts on them at the time mostly because I didn’t like them that much.)  (Well, I love Adaptation, but I found it very hard to write that entry so I haven’t yet gotten to it.)

Bad Day stars Spencer Tracy from Adam’s Rib and a bunch of Western stars I hadn’t heard of (except for Ernest Borgnine, who is mentioned in some Weird Al song).  It is a Western (my first one so far, which I’m excited about), social drama, and also what I would personally term a “high political” movie.  From my reading online, I see that this is also often classified as a “thriller” or “action movie,” but I cannot understand that categorization.  Even given the huge change in octane standards that we now expect in modern action movies, this movie has only three scenes involving extended violent faceoffs between characters, and none of them really seem to dwell in the action itself, the way that I think of martial arts movies or explosive action movies with guns and bombs.  The story also lacks the extreme tension and twisty-turniness, the chasing from scene to scene, of a usual thriller.  Instead, it uses a fantastic, subdued buildup of tension throughout its course to build to a wonderful conclusion and has you going home satisfied less than 90 minutes later.

Story summary

Sequence 1

  • McReedy gets off train, townspeople react with disbelief and surprise at the train stopping.
  • McReedy asks the telegraph man if he can take a cab to Adobe Flat.  Hastings, the telegraph man, tries to stop McReedy, telling him there are no cabs, and directing him to the hotel instead.
  • McReedy goes to the obviously empty hotel, but Pete, the clerk, tries to deny him a room by telling him all the rooms are taken.  McReedy takes a key for himself anyway.
  • After he gets out of the bathroom, McReedy finds Hector waiting on his bed, telling him to get another room, generally menacing him.
  • McReedy asks at the front desk where he can get a car.  Pete does not tell him, but Doc volunteers that he should try the garage down the street.
  • Smith arrives at the hotel, tries to find out about McReedy.  He tells Hastings to telegraph a PI in Los Angeles to find out who McReedy is.
  • McReedy goes to the jail to ask the sheriff what the story with Komako is.  The sheriff clams up, offers no help.
  • Smith talks to McReedy on street, tells McReedy that Komako was sent to a relocation center in 1941 after Pearl Harbor, McReedy won’t find him in Adobe Flat.
  • Liz arrives in a jeep; before Smith can stop him, McReedy rents the Jeep from her and drives out of town alone to visit Adobe Flat.

Sequence 2

  • Smith checks in with Tim, the sheriff.  Tells sheriff not to ask any questions about Komako, and to stay out of this potential issue.
  • Hastings brings news back to Smith: the PI in LA could find no information about McReedy.  Smith and his gang eye Tim down, who leaves, and then they talk about what to do about McReedy.  Smith commissions Coley to try to kill McReedy while out at Adobe Flat.
  • Doc visits Tim, tells him to stand up to Smith, Tim doubtful and chastened.
  • McReedy arrives in Adobe Flat, finds burned ruins of a house.  Notes wildflowers in the barren soil, well with water.
  • Driving home, he is ambushed by Smith’s thug Coley, who tries to drive him off the road and kill him.  McReedy finally veers off into a ditch and Coley drives away.

Sequence 3

  • McReedy returns to town, tells Coley he is trying to leave town.  Pete tells him there are no trains, buses, any other ways out of town leaving that day.
  • McReedy confronts Liz about the gang in town, but she is unwilling to get involved.
  • Smith confronts McReedy again at the gas station.  McReedy asks him about Komako again, Smith says teenagers burned his house down, reveals his racist anger and suspicion of Japanese Americans.
  • McReedy goes to Doc’s office, uses the phone.  Tries to dial the police but Pete, the operator, tells him all lines are busy and cuts him off.  Doc warns McReedy he’s in danger once it gets dark, refuses to step in on his side, but offers to let him use the hearse to drive away.  However, they try to start it up, and it’s broken.  Hector arrives to stop them, and pulls out engine wiring to prevent McReedy from leaving.
  • McReedy visits Hastings, gives him a note to send to the state police via telegram.
  • McReedy goes to diner, Coley comes and picks a fight with him, but McReedy defeats Coley effortlessly.  Tells Smith he’s already lost, whether he kills him or not; knows something bad happened with Komako and he won’t be able to hide from it forever.
  • Smith follows McReedy to hotel lobby again.  Hastings runs in suddenly, gives paper to Smith, but it is revealed to be McReedy’s note, unsent.  Doc points out Hastings has committed a crime, Tim tries to take action, but Smith stands him down and arbitrarily makes Hector the sheriff.  They destroy telegram and leave.

Sequence 4

  • Doc, Tim talk about helping McReedy.  Tim is scared, leaves, but Doc and McReedy convince Pete to join them.  They explain how Smith and his gang (including Pete) killed Komako after Pearl Harbor; McReedy says he fought in WWII in Italy, where Komako’s son saved his life and he’s trying to give a war medal to Komako.  They plan to defeat Smith and get McReedy out.
  • Pete and Doc ambush Hector and subdue him.  McReedy gets in a car to escape with Liz.
  • Liz stops at Komako’s house for ambush by Smith.  McReedy hides behind car, and Smith kills Liz.  He then moves around to get a view of McReedy.  McReedy uses a bottle and motor oil to make a Molotov cocktail, and hits Smith with it, burning him and stopping for good, but not killing him.

Sequence 5

  • McReedy returns the next morning with Smith, find Tim and Doc have taken control, put Coley and Hector in jail cell.
  • McReedy gets ready to leave on the train.  Doc asks to have Komako’s son’s medal, as something for the town to build on going into the future.  Police forces are in town, taking Smith and company into custody.  McReedy leaves.

Technicals

Inciting incident: train stops, McReedy gets off

Obligatory scene: McReedy confronts the forces in town trying to stop him from leaving

Crisis: McReedy’s confrontation with Smith

Climax: McReedy defeats Smith

Resolution: Justice is restored to town, it moves on from its past, McReedy leaves on next train

Controlling idea: Guilt for past crimes cannot be avoided forever

Number of acts: One seems to be the most common sense way to view this movie.  The story is extremely direct: no subplots, no flashbacks complicate the story.

Mystery

Bad Day at Black Rock uses mystery to compel our interest in the story.  As defined by McKee, mystery is the situation of the characters knowing more than the audience.  There is an interesting dual-sided mystery at play in Bad Day at Black Rock.  On the one hand, the second McReedy steps off the train, he finds the townspeople all acting “funny;” trying to obstruct his way, being hostile toward him and tight-lipped about anything to do with the town itself.  The town clearly possesses a dark secret around Komako, and it becomes McReedy’s goal to get to the bottom of it.

On the other hand, McReedy represents a total mystery to the townspeople.  He is the first stranger to come to town in at least four years; he arrives unannounced, in an ordinary black suit and disclosing little about himself.  He doesn’t have the appearance of a crime fighter; he doesn’t have the antagonistic bearing of someone on a mission to bring justice.  He is an ordinary gentleman who appears out of nowhere and starts asking questions about the one topic they don’t want to talk about.

Interestingly, McReedy’s personal mystery remains the greater of the two, and contributes to his ultimate triumph over Smith’s forces.  Almost from the start, we know that something is not right about the town, and by the time McReedy gets to Komako’s house, if not earlier, we know Komako was a victim of foul play by some people of the town.  The town’s secret is loose and the information can be had everywhere.  But when Smith tries to find out about McReedy from a private investigator in Los Angeles, the detective cannot find anything about McReedy: he is not a known cop, criminal, private investigator, or any other person of note in the city.  He is a “nobody,” as Smith puts it.  A nobody who could raise a big stink, but whose accidental death might not attract too much attention.

But the mystery of McReedy only deepens as Smith and his boys push on him, always underestimating his resourcefulness.  He turns out to be an adept driver of a military jeep, whom Coley cannot kill by driving off the road.  He then overcomes Coley in a hand-to-hand fight, using Asian martial arts tactics to surprise Smith and his whole crowd in the diner.  Lastly, Smith himself decisively underestimates McReedy when he ambushes him, and McReedy defeats him with a Molotov cocktail prepared on the spot.

The true nature of McReedy’s mission comes as a complete surprise: to pass war medals on to the father of a man who saved his life in war.  We think he must be a policeman, a journalist, anything but this.  His mission seems too deliberate, his questions too pointed.  If Smith had discovered McReedy’s backstory at the start, he may easily have told McReedy a false story about Komako and satisfied his interest.  As the film commentary also points out, it is only from the townspeople’s uniformly strange behavior that McReedy begins to have suspicions about the place.  If they had behaved normal, told the lie about Komako as easily as Smith, McReedy would probably never have asked another question.

This dual mystery is the reason for the structure of this story having the inciting incident placed right at the start, with no prior exposition.  As McKee notes, the only reason for delaying the inciting incident is to provide information that makes it meaningful when it happens.  In this film, it’s enough to see that the townspeople have such an immediately bewildered reaction to the train stopping to know that something interesting is going on.  We know nothing about the stranger or the town.  We learn about the town as McReedy does, and we learn about McReedy as the townspeople do.  Indeed, one of the most exciting aspects of this film is the pace that the information is revealed to us.

Social Relevance

By 1955, the Cold War had reduced American society to a divided, stifled, and paranoid state.  It was the year HUAC brought in Pete Seeger, Arthur Miller, and other political dissidents for questioning in its continuing public witch hunts.  Americans were also being confronted more and more with uncomfortable truths about racism in society, especially in the South.  In the guise of a western murder mystery, Bad Day at Black Rock examines these ugly parts of America.

According to the film commentary on the DVD, Bad Day at Black Rock was in fact the first major film in America that addressed Japanese internment in WWII.  Even today, this remains a topic remains an uncomfortable blemish on what is usually considered to be the US’s otherwise clean historical record in WWII.  Similarly, the town of Black Rock also refuses to acknowledge the past crimes committed by some citizens and allowed by the rest, hoping that by ignoring ugly facts they will go away.

McReedy then functions as an agitator, someone who forces the town to look itself in the right in the face.  He is unafraid to risk life and limb, presumably because of the horrors of his own experience in the war.  He tells a character at one point that he is in Black Rock to do one last thing before he “resigns from the human race.”  In his next sentence, he implies that what he means by that statement is going to live somewhere comfortable in retirement before he dies.  But the statement can be fairly interpreted to imply more ominously that, disillusioned by his experiences in the war, he is ready to leave the human race by killing himself, if he cannot find redemption in the town of Black Rock, doing a war comrade the honor of passing on his war medal.  If McReedy is disgusted enough by humanity to end his own life, that leaves him all the more apt to risk his life to solve Black Rock’s problem.  His one remaining mission in life, as he sees it, is to do honor to the man who saved his life in Italy; by overcoming an unexpected struggle to complete this mission and turn around a dying town, he finds his own personal redemption as well as redemption for the town.

He tries to compel numerous other inhabitants of the town to help him.  His talks with Pete and Doc are successful; his attempts with Hastings, Liz, and Tim are not.  As Smith exercises an iron grip on the town, he also controls the law within it as the legitimate face of his de facto rule.  Thus, McReedy’s attempt to involve the sheriff only brings about the sheriff losing his badge.  By attempting to telegraph a distress signal to the state police, McReedy even uses the force of law to try to compel Hasting’s involvement, as he is legally obliged to send the message.  Hastings, however, respects Smith’s law rather than the official code, and deigns to break federal law by giving the telegram directly to Smith.

As Smith’s men conspire to trap McReedy in town until night, a feeling of virtual suffocation builds in the film.  As McReedy’s escape routes vanish one by one, it is as if invisible tentacles reach out of the darkness to grab hold of him from all directions.  First all cars are denied him, then all methods of communicating with the outside world.  Astonishingly, by the time McReedy realizes how trapped he is, it’s too late.

The hostility of the landscape plays a role in this suffocation as well.  In classic western style, the aridity and barrenness of the landscape keep McReedy (and all other town occupants) stuck in the town limits.  There are few roads, which he must stick to when in a car.  And to flee on foot would be to imperil himself even more: if he managed not to get shot or rundown in the vast open wilderness, he would certainly die of exposure before he reached safety.

The dialogue of the film even reflects the doublespeak of American political culture.  Many of the conversations between characters are soaked in a rich irony attempting to mask their unspeakable feelings.  For example, a small hubbub is made over Liz not having a license to legally rent a car to McReedy.  This issue is first used by Smith to weakly attempt to dissuade Liz from loaning the car; McReedy replies with a smile that he won’t tell the sheriff, whom he already knows to be an pliable drunk.  Later, in one of the movie’s finest scenes, Smith corners McReedy at the gas station to talk.  McReedy mentions that Liz is “no longer in the car rental business.”  Smith comments: “Good.  I don’t want to see that girl get into any trouble… What with rental permits, gas rationing, that sort of thing.”  McReedy replies “I certainly admire your sturdy sense of responsibility,” to which Smith says “That girl has a future.”  None of which is true.  And all of which is a way of nonverbally acknowledging the fact that Smith has coerced her into not renting him a car, to keep McReedy trapped in his clutches.

An even more striking case of this false politeness is in the later scene in the hotel lobby, where McReedy loses his last hope of escape.  As the incident with the telegram happens, McReedy calmly shares the hotel lobby with Smith and Hector.  The situation has an element of absurdity to it: everyone in the room knows that Smith wants McReedy dead.  They know that Smith plans to make it happen that night.  Why doesn’t Smith just kill him right then?  It’s doubtful anyone would even try to stop him.  If Doc tried to interfere, Smith could just as easily kill him or menace him into submission, especially since he has the current sheriff Tim under his thumb (and even moreso his replacement Hector).  But instead, social decorum is observed, outright violence is deferred until the dark of night when “they can’t see each other’s faces.”  This crucial line implies one of the movie’s main points: the most inescapable consequence of a crime is the guilt of knowing oneself to be a criminal.  Smith and his cohorts attempt to keep their deeds hidden away in the darkness as much as possible, but they and the town simply cannot play that game forever.

The High Political Drama

I’ll conclude by noting this is the first example of a type of story that fascinates me, which I’ll term the high political drama.  By political, I do not mean that the story has to do with the despicable world of courtrooms, politicians, and the media, or the political issues that destroy our society like racism, war, drugs, the education system, and the like.  (Although I also enjoy those kinds of stories.)

I mean political in the sense that in this story, we have two parties working at cross-purposes over an issue of interpersonal ethics or justice.  This story is an inquiry of pure political philosophy: who is it really up to to enforce justice?  How can a group of people resolve a seemingly intractable dispute?  Can a person really choose to remain uninvolved in an ethical controversy, or are they rather lending legitimacy to the corrupt forces that rule the society?

It’s stories like this that I especially love for examining these questions.  The high political drama can involve any kind of moral question, and take place in any setting.  (I do think, however, that the western especially lends itself to high political stories because the law enforcer is often so arbitrary, and the landscape is hostile, forcing the two antagonized parties to remain near each other in continued conflict, as noted above.)  Bad Day at Black Rock does American cinema an honor in its examination of these questions.

Angel Heart (1987)

This film reinforces my belief that my obsessive alphabetical list methodology for this exploration of storytelling in film is a good one.  It’s because of this method that I end up watching a movie like Angel Heart, a somewhat forgotten film of the mid-80s with actors I don’t know in a genre I am not particularly drawn to.  I was previously unfamiliar with Mickey Rourke, but he does a great job in this movie.  (That endearing New York accent has something to do with it, I think.)  I didn’t love the movie, I think it has problems, but it’s also exemplary and well made in a lot of ways, and I’m definitely glad I watched it.  And I wouldn’t have watched it if I wasn’t just going down the list.

Plot analysis

The story is a blend of detective and supernatural horror.  The central plot is Harold Angel’s quest to find Johnny Favorite.  The inciting incident is when Harry accepts the job of finding Johnny Favorite.  The obligatory scene is thus the moment when Harry finds Johnny Favorite and/or turns him in to Louis Cyphre.  The crisis moment comes as Harry finally realizes he is Johnny Favorite, thus fulfilling the obligatory scene in an unexpected way.  The climax comes when Harry finally realizes he can’t escape his debt to Louis Cyphre and surrenders himself, which is followed by the scant resolution of Harry riding the elevator down into Hell.

The story is solidly archplot.  I divide the film up into 9 sequences, and three acts.  However, the act division is weak: the first act is merely the sequence leading up to Harry accepting the job from Cyphre, and the last act is the last sequence, everything after Ernest Krusemark dies.  The only thing that strongly differentiates that sequence from what comes before in my mind is the dawning realization that Harry is Johnny Favorite, and the highly accelerated pace of the story.

The story arguably makes just as much sense viewed as a single act: Harry’s pursuit of Johnny.  I have had two other movies so far that are in a single act – Alice in Wonderland and All the President’s Men, and a comparison with the latter strongly suggests itself.  Both movies are stories of pursuit, and I thereby wonder if it’s more common in that type of story to have a single act.  It needn’t always be so – I can imagine detective stories and the like where the nature of the story changes in several major turns.  However, in pursuit stories, a clear goal usually also exists from the top, so the protagonist’s mission won’t fundamentally change as he gets closer.  We will have to see how this turns out as we go along.

The controlling idea is “When you try to run from your debts, they will catch up with you in a much worse way.”  I had some trouble trying to render this idea.  My first thought was something like “You cannot back out of a bargain with the devil.”  This idea is true of course within the movie’s own world, and the audience certainly understands it from the story, but it doesn’t actually apply to real life!  Is that the lesson we should take away?  “Whenever you sell your soul to the devil in exchange for fame, don’t try to back out or you’ll end up murdering a bunch of other people along the way and still get caught?”  After some thought, I realized a more generally applicable form of the statement about running from debts.  It seems like this may be a pattern for supernatural horror type movies, for the controlling idea to be sort of hidden behind the antagonistic forces and the struggle of the story.  Maybe not every horror or action movie even has a substantial controlling idea.  Do Bond movies?  What is the idea?  James Bond wins?  It’s something I will have to test with other films in the future.

Subplots

Alongside this main plot, I identify two subplots.  The first is Louis Cyphre’s ruthless pursuit of his object, Johnny Favorite.  The other is a love story between Harry and Epiphany Proudfoot.

The first of these subplots is closely intertwined with the central plot, and was difficult to distinguish from it at first. However, they are not exactly the same plot.  To see the difference, ask yourself this from the point of view of an audience member early on in the story, as I did while watching the film: what will happen to Johnny Favorite after Harry turns him in to Cyphre?  Harry’s storyline, it seems, will be over, while Cyphre will go on to settle his account with Favorite.  It would be pointless watching the drawn out resolution of a subplot after the main plot had concluded.  (McKee does give one example of an effective resolution of a subplot after the main plot in a comedy to use cheap surprise as a gag, but generally it’s to be strictly avoided.)

Through this thought experiment, we see that Louis Cyphre’s pursuit stands as a distinct subplot throughout most of the film.  However, it does resolve into the main plot at the climax: Harry brings Johnny Favorite (himself) to Louis Cyphre, and Cyphre obtains the object of his pursuit, Favorite/Angel.

Regarding the resolution of these separate subplots, the film does an excellent job of tying all three of the subplots together in the climax scene.  As described, the first two plots merge when Harold realizes he is Johnny Favorite.  (This actually happens in the scene before the climax, taking place in Margaret Krusemark’s room, at least as I recall.)  Then, when Harry dashes back to the hotel room, he discovers Epiphany dead, murdered by his own hand.  As the realization penetrates him that is undeniably Johnny Favorite and that his fleeing has led to the unnecessary deaths of so many others, he accepts the consequences of his own decisions and stops running.

I am very glad I watched this, as the first time in this blog that I recognized the subplots of a film I analyzed.  I would rate the film itself as worthwhile.  It is visually beautiful, and the soundtrack also complements the movie well.  These seem to be two of the main things the movie is remembered for in its “cult circles.”  As for me, I probably won’t be watching it again anytime soon, but neither will I be forgetting it.

Amadeus (1984)

Act I

Sequence: Salieri attempts suicide

  • Salieri yells and shouts from his room; two servants try to coax him out with food; they open door and find him having just slit his throat with a knife.  He is rushed to a hospital.
  • A priest comes and visits Salieri at the hospital to take his confession.  Salieri mocks him at first, says the priest knows nothing of his music, and says he killed Mozart.  He begins telling the priest his history with Mozart.

Sequence: Salieri’s early childhood, seeing Mozart for the first time

  • As a young boy, Salieri’s father was unsupportive of his musical inclinations.  When his dad dies, he escapes and pledges his chastity and humility to God in exchange for being a great composer.
  • Salieri’s career is going well as court composer for Emperor Joseph II when the legendary Mozart comes to visit.  Salieri is stunned to find Mozart is a childish, sexual creature who defaces God but is blessed with musical genius.
  • Mozart is late for his performance, which angers his patron.  The patron scolds Mozart, who tries to get dismissed, but the Archbishop instead sends him back to Salzburg to his father.
  • Salieri is studying Mozart’s music which Mozart grabs on the way out.  Salieri questions why God chose “the creature” to be his instrument and not him.

Sequence: Salieri meets Mozart, Mozart outshines him

  • Emperor Joseph is interested in acquiring Mozart, but most of his advisers argue against this out of self-interest.  Salieri, however, argues that Mozart should be taken in, which pleases Joseph.
  • Salieri composes a welcome march for Mozart: his method is slow and tedious, but he piously thanks God for inspiration at every turn.  When Mozart arrives, he shows his superiority by playing the march back after one hearing and improving it.

Sequence: Mozart composes terrific opera, tepid reception by Emperor

  • At a music lesson afterwards, one of Salieri’s students asks about Mozart, stoking Salieri’s jealousy.  He tells her there would be no part for her in Mozart’s opera, but then she is cast as the lead in it.
  • After the opera, Joseph congratulates Mozart, then announces his disagreement with the opera for having too many notes, a criticism that Mozart finds meaningless and insulting.  It becomes clear too that Mozart has slept with Madame Calaveri, whom Salieri had fancied.

Sequence: Salieri vows to block God, Mozart

  • Leopold, Mozart’s father, tries to dominate Mozart’s life, and gets leave from Archbishop of Salzburg to try to bring Mozart back.  Mozart meanwhile marries Constanze without his father’s approval, angering Leopold.
  • Salieri then interferes to prevent Mozart from obtaining a position teaching the emperor’s niece.  Mozart tries to appeal, to no avail, not knowing who is truly behind his stymie.
  • Constanze appears to secretly ask Salieri to help Mozart get a favorable appointment from the court.  While flirting heavily with her, Salieri tells her that he will put in a good word.  He then looks at the copies of Mozart’s music that she brought with her, and he is overwhelmed with awe and envy at the music, and vows to “block God.”  He does nothing to help Mozart’s case.

Act II

Sequence: Mozart’s disapproving father returns home

  • Mozart’s father arrives back in Salzburg, sees wineglasses strewn throughout the apartment and Constanze sleeping until late in the day.  Asks Mozart directly how bad his financial situation is, whether he is taking on any pupils.  Mozart deflects the disapproval by taking Constanze and Leopold out dancing at a masquerade club, which Leopold only dislikes further.
  • While playing the penalty game at the masquerade club, Mozart is ordered to do tricks on the fortepiano.  He plays in a variety of styles; Salieri, who is secretly observing, orders Mozart to play like Salieri.  Mozart ends it with a big fart.  Salieri is ashamed and embarrassed, feels God is laughing at him for his mediocrity, says he will laugh at God before he leaves the Earth.

Sequence: Salieri discovers Mozart’s plans for next opera

  • A housemaid named Lorl appears at Mozart’s door, offering her services for free, paid for by an anonymous admirer.  Leopold tries to decline her, not knowing who her boss is, but Constanze and Mozart take her in, and Constanze and Leopold start to fight.
  • Salieri pays Lorl with food and asks her what she has observed in Mozart’s house.  He says to let him know next time the house is empty.
  • Salieri comes over to Mozart’s house to look around with them gone.  Lorl shows that the Mozarts have been selling off gold snuffboxes for money.  Salieri then finds Mozart’s manuscripts in progress for The Marriage of Figaro, a play which is banned in Joseph’s kingdom.

Sequence: Salieri fails to block Figaro, but the Emperor dislikes the final opera

  • Salieri informs Rossini and Joseph’s other advisors about Mozart’s opera.  Joseph confronts Mozart about it, but Mozart successfully pleads his case and goes ahead with the opera, to the shock of Salieri’s cadre.
  • While Mozart rehearses, Salieri discusses how to block Mozart next, letting drop that the opera has ballet, which is banned in Emperor Joseph’s theater.  Rossini disrupts at Mozart’s rehearsal and tells him that ballet is not allowed, and begins to tear pages out of Mozart’s score.
  • Mozart pleads with Salieri to help him; Salieri says he’ll help but again does nothing.  Joseph then unexpectedly appears at a rehearsal of the opera and is baffled by the unaccompanied dancing on stage.  After arguing with his counselors about the law, he orders a full restoration of the ballet.
  • At the opening night performance, Salieri is once again flattened by the brilliance of the third and fourth acts of the opera, overcome with defeat.  Suddenly Joseph lets out a yawn during the performance, which dooms Mozart’s opera to a short run, providing Salieri with a final sense of triumph.

Sequence: Salieri discovers how to control Mozart: through his dead father’s memory

  • Mozart meets with Salieri later to gripe about his opera’s short run, considering it is, according to him, the best opera ever written.  Salieri pretends to empathize with him, then asks if Mozart would take a look at his new opera before he produces it.  With great sincerity, Mozart says the honor would be all his.
  • Salieri’s opera turns out to be a huge hit.  Joseph deems it the best opera yet written, gives him a medal.  Mozart comes down to personally congratulate Salieri with wrenched-out praise, which Salieri accepts with an air of superiority.
  • Mozart arrives home to the news that his father has died.
  • His next opera, Don Giovanni, turns out to be clearly about his father and how he continues to haunt him.  From the content of the opera, Salieri realizes how he can control Mozart, through his father’s continuing control of Mozart from beyond the grave.

Act III

Sequence: Salieri commissions funeral mass from Mozart

  • From the passage of time and hard years, Mozart looks more sick, and drinks much more at home.  Salieri, disguised in the frightening black mask that Leopold wore at the dance party, surprises Mozart at home, commissions Mozart to begin working on a funeral mass, gives him money.  Mozart does not seem to question whether this is a real person or an apparition, where the money is coming from, or anything.  He simply fearfully accepts the money.
  • In a theater of the common people, Mozart watches an undignified play and talks with the owner about staging an opera of his there.  The man offers Mozart half of the receipts, sure to be a great sum, but only once the opera runs.  Constanze fights against the idea, saying Mozart needs the money now and shouldn’t trust the playhouse.
  • Working at home, a great pounding occurs on the door.  Mozart assumes it is the man in black again, and hides, telling Constanze to tell him he’s not there, and he’s working on it as fast as he can.  She opens and the playmaster comes in instead.  He looks at the papers and sees that it’s not the opera he commissioned.  Mozart runs back out and the playmaster castigates him for not working on the opera, but Mozart says it’s already worked out in his head.
  • Lorl tells Salieri through tears that she can’t work at Mozart’s house any more, the environment is too poisonous.  Salieri asks if Mozart is working, and she says he spends all his time now on a comic opera.

Sequence: Mozart faints at opening performance of Magic Flute

  • Salieri returns in his mask getup to spur Mozart on, tells him the reward will be greater the sooner the work is finished.  Constanze joins, thanks the man, and promises to sit with Mozart while he works on the mass.  Mozart says he doesn’t want to finish the mass, he feels it’s killing him.
  • Mozart works into the night, and then sneaks out once Constanze falls asleep in the chair.  He parties, then when he arrives back home finds that Constanze has packed her things and left.
  • At a performance of his new opera, The Magic Flute, Mozart takes ill and faints.  Salieri takes Mozart home and sends the driver away, leaving him alone with Mozart.

Sequence: Mozart dies

  • After Mozart awakes, some visitors at the door ask about his well-being.  Salieri says he’s taking care of Mozart and sends them away; the playmaster leaves Mozart’s share of the house receipts.  Salieri tells Mozart that it was the man in the black mask, and he gave Mozart the money to finish the mass by the next night.  Mozart says he cannot finish in that time, but Salieri volunteers to help him.
  • Constanze, far away from Mozart, senses that something is wrong and immediately leaves to come back to Vienna.
  • As they compose together, Mozart confesses that he is ashamed, he did not think that Salieri liked his music.  Salieri tells Mozart that he is truly the greatest composer known to him.  Mozart asks for Salieri’s forgiveness, launching deep tremors of guilt within Salieri.
  • Constanze arrives home and orders Salieri away, says that Mozart is not to work on the funeral mass any more, it is killing him.  They argue, and Salieri says he will respect whatever Mozart’s wishes are.  Constanze goes to ask Mozart, only to discover that he has died.

Sequence: Salieri accepts his position of mediocrity

  • Mozart receives a pauper’s burial, being dumped into a common grave.  Salieri stands silently among all his mourners and close relations who are weeping as the hearse drives away.
  • Finishing his tale, Salieri laughs, and says that the priest’s “merciful God” now tortures Salieri, keeping him alive to watch as Mozart’s music grows in stature to immortality, while his own dies out, and is already forgotten within his own lifetime.  He tells the priest not to worry, he is the patron saint of mediocrity, who can absolve the priest and all others of their mediocre sins.

(that bullet list got away from me, once again)

Technicals

Inciting Incident: Salieri’s first encounter with Mozart

Crisis: Salieri’s suicide attempt

Climax: Salieri’s tale, which itself culminates in Mozart’s death

Resolution: Salieri accepting his position of mediocrity

Controlling idea: Genius and achievement always invokes the malice of those less able.

Genre: Historical drama, disillusionment plot

I don’t feel certain about where I’ve placed the divisions of the acts.  If anyone else wants to comment, exchange ideas, please do so.  Acts I and II are not very distinct right now, so it in fact could be that they are better thought of as a single act, and act III becomes act II of the story, where Salieri actively pursues the downfall of Mozart.

Frame story

This is my first film with a frame story, that is, a story where much of the content is another story (or stories) told by a characters.  This is a prominent enough device in film, and story-telling in general, that I think McKee probably should have devoted some space to it in the book as story analysis is complicated in a frame story, and I still have unanswered questions about it.  What is the relationship of the inner story to the outer story?  Does the inner story have its own inciting incident, crisis, and climax?  Does the outer story; could they share elements?  Should the inner story be treated as the main story, and the outside one just as incidental material?  The answers, I suspect, differ from film to film, and in any case, will be illuminated as we examine more films with framing stories.

In Amadeus, the film’s protagonist, Salieri, is also the teller of the story (which is not always the case).  According to the Wikipedia article cited above, one of the potential uses of a frame story is to provide a narrative hook at the start of the story when the inner story otherwise lacks one.  Here that is furnished by Salieri’s bloody failed suicide attempt.  The inner story itself starts off from Salieri’s childhood, and progresses slowly but steadily through his early years to meeting Mozart.  This plays an interesting role with the story structure itself: as noted above, I have identified that event as the crisis moment of the story.

To understand this analysis, let’s look a bit more at the meaning of the story.  I have the following written in my notes as Salieri’s object of desire: “To overcome Mozart.  But he is still defeated—his music is fading while Mozart’s is growing.  On a deeper level, he must accept his own position—relative mediocrity.”  From the moment he first meets Mozart, Salieri is wrapped up in a deep jealousy of Mozart’s amazing abilities versus his own.  The hurt is worsened by the fact that Salieri made a solemn vow to God to live a completely pious life in exchange for this ability, while Mozart has clearly never thought much about God at all before.  From this pain, we envision an obligatory scene in which Salieri must either triumph musically over Mozart (which we understand is not possible) or accept his inferiority in a process of self-destruction of his ego and perhaps of his faith in God as well.

Salieri’s consuming jealousy drives him to try to defeat Mozart by hook or by crook.  Salieri sabotages Mozart’s career.  Salieri discovers a way to psychologically dominate and torture Mozart, which he then uses to slowly drive Mozart to death (a bit of a Shakespearean dramatic flourish itself, in which the stress of completing the commission from the masked man causes Mozart to expire).  Salieri even, it appears, has plans to secretly claim credit for Mozart’s funeral mass, publishing it under his own name and having it played publicly in memory of Mozart: the inclusion of such an undoubtedly grand opus in his own catalogue would surely ensure his own eternal fame, Salieri hopes.

However, although he also doesn’t seem to live with any strong grief or remorse over the murder he orchestrated, Mozart’s death yields Salieri no pleasure.  As he stands in the rain with the other weeping mourners, it must strike Salieri that Mozart was both more well regarded and well loved than he himself will ever be.  His object of desire—to overcome Mozart—has in no way been attained.

Through the years, Salieri watches Mozart’s music rise and his own fade.  As his life itself (finally, mercifully) fades away, he can no longer avoid confronting the demons of his existence.  Imagine him in his house the hour before his suicide attempt.  Sitting at his piano, playing over the weak, strained melodies that he created through the years, acknowledging to himself how Mozart’s are in a class entirely separate, that seem to flow out of his hands so much more easily and feel so much more satisfying to hear and to play.  Same shabby room he’s had to himself for the last however many years.  No one who cares, no one who really knows him.  No one who even remember what he wrote.  And one day, after years of bottling the feelings, he finally faces down the unavoidable truth, and cannot bear his own existence any longer.  That is a crisis.

The suicide has no meaning to the audience at this time, of course.  It provokes, however, the urgent questions to find out why this old man has done this, and what happens to him next.  After the all-night-and-into-the-next-day telling (in story time), the reason for Salieri’s attempt is only too understandable.  Yet has anything about him changed now?  Being held inside an abysmal mental hospital, is going to take his next good chance to try to kill himself again?

We sense, in his final actions, he is not.  Salieri now laughs, dismisses the priest and calls himself the “Patron Saint of Mediocrity.”

It is difficult to locate the exact climax of this story.  With confidence, I can say that the climax of the “inner story” is the funeral sequence.  That is also certainly the most powerful part of the movie.  Does that automatically make that moment the climax?  It seems like it.

There is a definite change in Salieri that happens from the start to the end of the movie.  At the start, he is suicidal.  At the end, after telling his whole story to the priest, he is resolved, happy, self-actualized.  Something in between causes him to change, but I myself am actually not clear on what it is.  I think the answer to this lies in identifying exactly where the climax is, and what it means.

Well this is maybe the worse blog entry I’ve done so far, but I’m just going to post it to be done with it and move on.  Maybe come back one day in the future and finish it.

 

All That Jazz (1979)

Liked this one a lot.  I was expecting a showtunes-y type musical, something with big choreographed dance numbers and big orchestral bands accompanying the Broadway style music.  Instead, All That Jazz is a more hard-edged, minimal film about a Broadway director, with some rock-style numbers thrown in mostly as background music, for montages and the like.  All That Jazz takes on the ultimate big question—what is the value of life?—in a dark, honest way that still doesn’t provide any conclusive answers; rather it chronicles its main character’s confrontation with death.  It’s worth noting that the writer-director Bob Fosse based the movie on his own life: the juggling of multiple show-business jobs, the drugs, the women, the daughter-and-wife situation, the heart attacks all came from his own experience just a couple of years prior to the making of this film.

I also announce with joy that this completes my first page from Robert McKee’s list!  I skipped a few of the films on it: The Accidental Tourist I watched very first, but did not write a blog entry on—I think I only mildly enjoyed it, and found the story difficult.  (Plan on coming back later.)  I skipped Airplane! Because it’s really just not a very good movie.  I watched Alive but it also wasn’t very good.  Last of all, I watched Amarcord before the present film, but really didn’t like it either.  The people in it are just very disgusting.  I will reserve judgment on Fellini until I see his earlier stuff, but I could have done without wasting the time on Amarcord.

Act I

Sequence: Joe casts his musical.

  • Joey Gideon wakes up in the morning and gets ready for a typical day: listening to Vivaldi, smoking while in the shower, taking speed and using eyedrops.  Finally, he’s ready, looks at himself in the mirror, and says, “It’s showtime!”
  • Joey runs a large dance audition for a new show he’s putting on.  He flirts with one of the less-talented but attractive dancers Victoria, and confirms her phone number before he accepts her into the show.
  • After his audition, rushing out the door, he speaks to Audrey and Michelle, his ex-wife and daughter.  Audrey reminds him he is supposed to take Michelle for the weekend, but he forgot and can’t do it.  Standing at the door, he jokes that he is father of the year.
  • Joey edits a movie of a stand-up comic talking about the five stages of dying.  His editing crew is tired and fed up with his unending editing process, but he wants more changes made as he leaves.
  • Back at his apartment, Victoria comes over; they make love then fall asleep.  While they are sleeping, Joe’s steady girlfriend Katie walks in on them in bed, throws a fit, then leaves.  Joe feels ashamed, then rolls right over for more fun with Vicky.
  • In a flashback, Joe gets his start in the biz and his sexual awakening at the same time, working at age 15 in a cabaret club.  Before he goes on stage, all the burlesque dancers crowd around him and arouse him.  He is in the middle of his tap routine when he realizes the audience is laughing at him for a fresh cum spot standing out on his pants.

Sequence: Joe faces difficulty with song, repairs his relationship with Michelle

  • Katie gets offered a touring job and asks Joe if he thinks she should take it.  When he tells her he thinks she should “do what’s best for her,” meaning he doesn’t care if she goes or not, she starts to call a guy and set up a date with him.  Katie and Joe fight, and Joe starts the scene over, and asks her not to go, which satisfies her and she stays.
  • At a music discussion session for his upcoming play, Joe softly rejects an offering by Paul, the composer.  As he focuses off into the distance in the room, a series of jarring thoughts and fears cross his mind: a comical reminiscence about living with two girls at once, then images of him clutching at his right hand in pain, and laying in a hospital bed with a breathing mask, thinking about how he smokes too much.
  • In the editing room for his movie, Josh, a studio representative, comes by to inquire about progress on the show.  He flips out at the money Joe is costing him, but Joe assuages him when he shows him his recut film, Josh agreeing it’s worth so much more now.
  • At rehearsal for the show, Joe is frustrated by the poor material and his own poor choreography thus far.  Joe dances afterwards with his daughter, and has some good father daughter time.  She boldly, semi-accusatorily asks him when he’s going to marry again, listing all his girls he keeps affairs going with.  Joe finally collapses in the corner in a coughing fit.

Sequence: Joe solves dance problem

  • At a dance rehearsal, Victoria’s dancing is noticeably worse than all others’.  After putting her through the wringer, Victoria breaks down in embarrassment and discouragement, but Joe asks her to go again.  She finally does, and dances much better, earning the genuine applause of her fellow castmates.
  • Joe has an insurance physical, and passes amidst much putrid hacking and coughing from him and the chimney-smoking doctor.
  • At another day’s rehearsal, Joe leaves dance rehearsal to think, and starts talking to his wife (who is playing the 24-year old lead in the play to prove to Joe she still can pull it off).  They argue about his philandering and his poor fathering.  Her accusations seem to ignite inspiration in him, and he hustles out of the room to get back to the dance studio.
  • Later, he demonstrates the choreography for the showpiece number “Airotica” to Jones and the other producers of the play.  The choreography stuns them as it has now been turned up to a hyper-sexual R-rated style, but is undeniably good.  At the end of it, Audrey runs out of the room crying, saying it’s the best work he’s ever done.

Sequence: Joe has near heart attack

  • Joe screens his comic movie for Josh.  Josh loves it, but Joe seems still unsatisfied.
  • Having dinner with Michelle and Katie at home, Joe is surprised by them dancing for him, for his approval.  He loves and appreciates the gesture.
  • The entire cast gathers for the first full script read-thru.  As the actors descend into casually reading through it, and everyone loving the humor of the script, Joe is suddenly frozen with pain and fear as he suffers a severe angina attack.  He covers up his pain for hours until the reading is done, then rushes to the hospital with Audrey.

Act II

Sequence: Joe chooses to ignore doctor’s orders; producers consider another director for musical

  • The doctor diagnoses Joe with severe angina, and says he could be extremely close to having a major heart attack, and orders bed rest.  Joe resists the prescription, but as he vehemently argues with the physicians, he is seized again with pain and laid back down, now undoubtedly constrained to the hospital for further testing.
  • Michelle asks Audrey in a cab what is wrong with her dad.  Audrey tells her that he has exhaustion and just needs rest, but Michelle tells her she knows she’s lying.
  • Jones holds a meeting with the cast, tells them Joe is overstressed and suffering from exhaustion, but assures them the play will definitely go on: they will all definitely get their money.  To lighten the mood, Paul starts improvising a jaunty number on piano and Audrey dances a jig in the center.
  • Jones has a meeting with a man named Lucas, a sought-after director on Broadway.  Jones describes the great opportunity of the show and Joe’s dire condition, implicitly offering Lucas the job, for the same amount of money Joe would be getting.
  • Joe and his cardiologist Dr. Ballinger have a mutual ill regard for each other.  Joe is moved up to a private room in the hospital from intensive care but ordered to stay calm and not to eat bad food or smoke.  Joe immediately starts partying though, having many visitors, sneaking bad food and cigarettes, and drinking alcohol.

Sequence: Joe sent into heart surgery, producers assess insurance liability

  • The team of doctors at the hospital gathers to discuss Joe’s case.  Some of the younger doctors are astonished that Joe doesn’t seem to care whether he lives or dies; Dr. Bellinger disagrees, saying he believes Joe Gideon cares immensely.
  • Visiting Joe at the hospital, Josh raves about the reviews his movie has been getting.  Then Joe turns on a TV to find an extremely negative review by a TV critic.  Joe seems very impacted by the review.
  • Joe goes into open heart surgery and has dreams while under the anesthetics of the doctors and staff in very Broadway array discussing his condition.  After he comes out, an orderly tells him he predicts he will live, and he’s hardly ever wrong.
  • Joe talks to Katie in his room later, and says he had tried to call her at midnight one night and she didn’t answer.  She admits to being with another man then, and Joe admits this hurts him.  She says she does love him, but doesn’t know whether she can ever count on him.  Joe insists he loves her, and thinks they’re still together.
  • Jones and the other producers meanwhile have a meeting with the insurers of the play over Joe’s health condition.  The insurance man lays out that if either Joe returns to health and finishes the show or they bring in another director to finish, they will get no insurance compensation; but if Joe dies and they abandon production, they will get a payment of $1 million, a 100% profit on the approximately $500K they have spent on the show so far.  The offer sounds intriguing and appetizing.

Sequence: Joe survives heart surgery, begins to regret the way he treated Audrey, Michelle, and Katie

  • While recovering in the hospital, Joe starts having vivid hallucinations in his bed.  He sees himself as a director, leading a series of numbers by Audrey, Katie, and Michelle, the three women in his life, pleading with him for attention and love, and Joe, stuck in bed, is unable to be for them what they need.
  • Joe begs with the blonde woman, Death, not to take him now, he isn’t ready to go.
  • Joe’s doctors come in to assess his condition, and say that his incision seems to be healing nice, and he should be getting better.

Sequence: Joe dies

  • Lucas meets with Jones for lunch and is deflated to learn he won’t be directing the play now after all.
  • Stuck in his bed, Joe begins to feel chest pains again and asks for help from the nurse, but she refuses to do anything for a long time, saying she just gave him his meds and shouldn’t be feeling anything right now.  Joe is finally brought down to the emergency room for immediate care again, as he confronts Death with the reality that something has gone wrong inside him.
  • Under his own power, Joe disappears from his hospital bed and wanders the hospital.  He enters the autopsy room, and seeing where he is, tells them he’ll be back to see them soon and leaves.  He consoles an older woman who was suffering in pain and fear, then finally ends up in the cafeteria after hours, singing with a happy janitor there until staff find him and bring him back to his bed.
  • Joe’s pulse is very weak as Death starts putting make up on him for his final appearance on the stage of life.  Joe is introduced by the black showman once more as a “so-so entertainer, not much of a humanitarian, and never was anybody’s friend.”
  • After a big final number, “Bye Bye Life,” Joe rendezvous with death.  Back on planet earth, his dead body is zipped up into a body bag.

Analysis of the film is difficult along the avenues I am used to.  All of the values the protagonist stands for at one point are contradicted at another—most of all, Joe seems to simultaneously court death, fear it, and understand he is pushing himself into it.  Additionally, he recognizes that his nonstop “screwing around” wounds the trio of women closest to him (ex-wife, daughter, girlfriend), yet does not stop.  It is nevertheless a deeply affecting story, at least to this viewer.

I would classify it as a miniplot story, punitive plot genre classification, best divided into two acts: before and after his heart problems begin.  The sequences are only kind of suggestions; they don’t always build into anything advancing the plot forward.  Joe’s choreography of “Take off with Us” provides a great artistic victory and affirmation, for example, but what does all that matter when his heart is failing him and he can do naught but regret the way he has treated the people closest to him?

The two acts are almost like two different movies contained within one: the first portraying his freewheeling lifestyle, the second his rapid death spiral.  The closest thing I could find to an inciting incident is Joe’s angina attack, which initiates the second half of the movie, and starts the inexorable progress toward the movie’s conclusion.  However, this takes place 1 hour and 8 minutes into the film, in clear violation of McKee’s admonition that you should not keep your audience waiting around for the story to start for more than half an hour.

How is this violation explainable here?  The first thing to recognize is that McKee’s rules, even such a “hard and fast” one as the thirty minute inciting incident rule, aren’t at all hard or fast.  Every story is different, its methods of explication and progress unique to itself and its own needs.  The only question worth asking is whether the story is successful on its own terms.  Does it strike us as good?  (Keeping in mind that tastes between any two people also differ.)

McKee’s rule does provoke some worthwhile discussion points.  With the inciting incident of the fatal conflict coming so late, how does the movie stay interesting for the first hour?  What might the story look like if it was constructed in a more standard way?

Does the first hour of the movie sag?  I find that it does not; what keeps it going?  I think it’s helped along by several musical sequences, which hold attention as long as the songs and visuals are interesting.

Joe does also ride through a few ups and downs in the first act.  He has difficulty imagining a suitable dance sequence for “Take Off With Us,” but outdoes himself in the end with what he comes up with.  He forgets to take care of his daughter one weekend, but has a terrific one-on-one dance session with her, demonstrating his fatherly love for her, and her love of him.  Before we thought very badly of him as a father; now we are maybe willing to forgive his honest mistake after seeing his relationship with his daughter up close.  He similarly damages then repairs his relationship with Katie.  His relationship with Audrey is more tangled, it seems.  She takes the starring role in his new musical, playing a 24-year old character to prove to him that she still has it.  When he triumphantly demonstrates his dance for “Take Off With Us,” his wife cries bitterly, telling him that it’s the best work he’s ever done.  Audrey cannot seem to let go of him, even though he doesn’t give a whit for her feelings.  All three of his women clamor for his approval and attention, which he divides between the three of them and his flings.

What would the movie look like, told in a more conventional fashion? Gideon’s heart troubles begin within the first ten or fifteen minutes of the film, and while his condition deteriorates, he goes on trying to live the same life as before.  The lines between cause and effect would be clearer: no ambivalence over fearing death, a stronger regret for his actions, and much less expository material for the first half of the film—that would all be contained inside the rest of the story, as much as possible.

One departure from “conventionality” in this movie (and an obstacle in story analysis) is the blurring of the lines between reality and fantasy.  Once Joe is stuck in the hospital, it becomes harder and harder to distinguish between his hallucinations and the truth.  For example, the image of the black smiling showman introducing a guest is first seen on a tv screen in the hospital; by the third time we see him he is fully a part of Joe’s internal thought process.

The scenes where he talks with the beautiful woman in white—Death—are not even clear until the end of the film.  Are they really happening in some other time and place, after the events of the story?  It looks like he’s in a dressing room, talking to an actress.

Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance?

Joe is a great director, but turns out to have close relationships with almost no one.  When they find out he is seriously ill, the first concern of everyone involved with the play (besides Audrey) is how they’re going to get their money now.  The producers assure the actors they’ll get paid; the insurance company lays out the conditions under which their policy will activate.  When they find out that the money only comes if Joe dies and they abandon production, they kick out the potential replacement and wait for him to either die or finish the play.  He is worth nothing to any of them except money.  (The same is true for Josh, the movie producer who frets about budgets and raves about the positive reviews bringing in a big payday in wide release.)

Joe seeks to improve his relationships with the three main women in his life, all of whom he clearly loves in his own way.  All three demonstrate their continuing adoration for him, not only through displays of love like this but even through their continued toleration of his infidelities.  But even when Joe is on his death bed, he can’t fully confess to his bad ways.

The only woman he has an honest relationship with is the female embodiment of death, with whom he is unfailingly frank, discussing his intentions with the women in his life.  Indeed, he does not even have a stable relationship with himself, as the hallucination scenes show.  He imagines himself as a film director shooting the accusatory songs from Audrey, Katie, and Michelle.  As film director, he hassles himself to make decisions on the material they have shot: his conscience challenges him to come to terms with his infidelity towards all of them.

It turns out that death was the only figure he really courted.  His final stage number, “Bye Bye Life” is not a dirge but a celebration.  He goes out with a bang and a smile on his face.

All That Jazz is a story about a man of contradictions.  He simultaneously loves his wife and girlfriend.  He simultaneously needs to work yet kills himself with stress.  He simultaneously begs Death to come another day and flirts with Her.

Did anyone else notice how he’s always shown with a sheen of sweat?  The most you could say definitively about Joe Gideon is that he lived intensely.

American Beauty (1999)

American Beauty is one of my favorite movies, and I was greatly looking forward to watching it closely for this blog.  It was a pleasure to explore more deeply.  All I can say is that this film would bear analysis for many more pages than what I’m doing here.  (This blog entry is 7 pages in Word.)  Something I would consider doing is more extensive posts on certain aspects of the films I really love, such as this, Alien, and All Quiet on the Western Front.  But who knows when that will come?

Scene Breakdown

Act I

  • Jane, on a home video camera, talks to Ricky behind the camera about killing her dad.  Unclear if she’s serious.

Sequence: Lester’s job in jeopardy, Ricky moves in next door

  • Lester introduces his sad, boring life.  His wife Carolyn is obsessed with the front garden, and his teenage daughter Jane is distant and unhappy with her appearance.
  • At work, Lester reacts sarcastically when he is told he must write up on paper why his job is important to avoid being laid off.
  • On the car ride home, Lester and Carolyn argue about whether he should try to fight for his job.  Lester doesn’t want to.
  • At dinner, Lester jokes about his job some more.  When Jane leaves the table, Lester tries to talk to her in the kitchen, to get close, but she blames him for being aloof for the past several years.  As Lester turns to the dirty dishes, he is shown through the perspective of a home video camera.  Sensing he is being watched, he looks out the window, but sees nothing.

Sequence: Lester meets Angela

  • Carolyn, a real estate broker, works her ass off to get a house ready for showing, repeating an insistent mantra to herself.  After a series of customers, she has no takers, and shuts herself in the house and breaks down, then slaps herself for crying.
  • In an effort to support Jane more, Lester and Carolyn attend a basketball game that Jane is cheerleading at.  Lester is unenthusiastic until the halftime dance, when he notices Jane’s friend Angela, and is transfixed by her.  He goes into a fantasy with her dancing and rose petals flowing towards him.
  • After the game, Lester meets Angela and embarrasses Jane by his drooling over her.
  • That night, Lester dreams about Angela, and a sublime smile seems to come across his face.

Sequence: Jane meets Ricky

  • As Jane comes in that night, she spies Ricky, her new neighbor, videotaping her from his porch.  She feigns hostility, but inside, she secretly smiles to herself.
  • The next morning, Lester tries to call Angela while Jane is in the shower, then sneaks off, which disgusts Jane even more.
  • In the next house, breakfast is interrupted by the gay neighbors knocking on the door to introduce themselves.  Ricky’s dad Frank complains on the car drive to school about the faggots, Ricky facetiously agrees with him.
  • At school, Ricky approaches Jane and Angela to introduce himself.  Jane is intrigued by his confidence.

Sequence: Lester meets Ricky

  • Ricky’s parents watch an army movie—Ricky’s mom seems zombielike, the dad does not notice or care.
  • At a cocktail party for real estate brokers, Carolyn comes face to face with Buddy Kane, the local king of real estate.  Lester, bored, happens to meet his new neighbor Ricky, and heads out back to smoke pot with him.  When his boss comes out and threatens to fire him for shirking his work, Ricky quits, shocking and amazing Lester.

Sequence: Lester begins to change, gains courage

  • At home that night, Angela flirts with Lester who has another fantasy about kissing her.  Snapped back into reality, he spits out his root beer when he finds out that she is spending the night over.
  • In their room, Angela teases Jane about her dad as Lester listens outside the door.  They then notice that Ricky has written Jane’s name in cursive on the lawn outside her window.  Angela keeps making fun of him, but Jane is secretly happy.  Ricky, videotaping this, then pans down to see Lester strangely lifting weights in his garage, then examining himself naked in the reflection.
  • Ricky’s dad knocks on his door and asks for a urine sample for a drug test.
  • Lester gets caught masturbating to Angela in bed that night, then surprises Carolyn (and himself) by winning an argument about divorce.

Act II

Sequence: Carolyn begins affair, Lester switches jobs to working at a fast food joint

  • In a series of intercut scenes, things progress with Lester and Carolyn.  Lester buys pot from Ricky, leaves his old job, blackmails his boss for a bunch of money, and starts working at Mr. Smiley’s.
  • Carolyn meanwhile goes from having dinner to having wild hotel sex with Buddy Kane.

Sequence: Jane falls in love with Ricky

  • Jane decides, against Angela’s wishes, to walk home with Ricky.
  • Ricky shows Jane a series of things he considers interesting and beautiful, and she kisses him.

Sequence: Both sets of parents further estrange their children

  • In an argument at dinner, Lester throws a plate of asparagus and shouts to assert himself.
  • After dinner in Jane’s room, Carolyn tries to apologize to Jane, then slaps her hard on the face when Jane is sassy.
  • Carolyn leaves the room in tears, then Jane goes to the window, where sure enough, Ricky is videotaping.  Jane disrobes for him.
  • Ricky’s taping is interrupted by his dad storming into the room and violently knocking him to the floor, accusing him of using drugs again.  Ricky regains his father’s trust by saying he was showing the Nazi plate to his girlfriend Jane.

Sequence: Jane and Ricky become lovers

  • Coming back from a great day at the gun range downtown, Carolyn is nonplussed to see a vintage red sportscar out in the driveway.
  • Confronting Lester about the car, they begin to argue, then start to fall naturally into a steamy encounter.  However, it is abruptly ruined when she stops him before his spills his beer on the couch.  They fight about possessions and material goods.
  • Ricky and Jane videotape each other meanwhile after sex in Ricky’s room.  Ricky tells why he was put in a mental hospital, Jane seemingly half-jokes about killing her dad, then comment that they are lucky to have each other.

Act III

Sequence: Lester catches Carolyn and Buddy Kane cheating

  • Some time later, Lester is in much better shape.  Jane tells him that she has been embarrassed about the way he acts around Angela, and Lester snaps at her, telling her she’s going to become a real bitch.  Jane leaves, and he feels regretful.
  • Frank watches his son leave for school with Jane and observes Lester seem to talk to Ricky about something.  He checks in Ricky’s room and finds a home video of Lester, nude, lifting weights in the garage window.
  • Carolyn and Buddy unknowingly pull into the drivethru where Lester works, and he confronts them.  Back at their motel, Buddy decides to call off the affair.  Carolyn screams in rage, alone in the car.

Sequence: Frank “observes” Ricky having sex with L, kicks him out

  • Over dinner, Lester calls Ricky to buy some pot.  Suspicious of Ricky’s excuse, Frank watches from his son’s window, and thinks he sees Ricky giving Lester a blowjob, then both of them scrambling up and away as Jane and Angela come into the house.
  • Angela hits on Lester, but when he tries to seduce her, she cowers away.
  • Ricky returns to his room where his father confronts him in a rage about what he thinks he saw.  Ricky finally plays along with his dad, crushing his beliefs in his son by falsely confessing to being a gay prostitute.  Frank, in tears, tells Ricky to get out.  Ricky leaves.

Sequence: Frank confronts Lester, tries to kiss him

  • Ricky comes and asks Jane if she would leave to New York with him that night.  Angela mocks them both as freaks, but Ricky turns on her and insults her on the deepest level, as boring, ugly, and ordinary, hurting her.
  • Frank shows up outside the garage while Lester is chilling.  Lester brings him in out of the pouring rain, but the distraught Frank cannot speak.  When Lester tries to bring him in the house to dry off, Frank hugs then kisses Lester, but Lester rejects him.  Frank, even more bewildered and anguished, leaves back into the rain.

Sequence: Lester turns down sex with Angela

  • Lester finds Angela listening to the stereo and consoles her, telling her that she’s beautiful and he loves her.  They begin to kiss, and Lester moves her to the couch.  She reveals to him that she is a virgin, and he stops, and wraps her up in a blanket.

Sequence: Lester realizes his happiness, Frank kills Lester

  • In the kitchen, Lester asks Angela about Jane.  He is happy to hear that she is truly in love with Ricky.  Angela asks Lester how he is, and he reflects that no one has asked him that in a long time, but he is great.  Angela leaves, and Lester sits down to stare happily at an old family picture.  A gun suddenly shoots him in the head from behind, splattering blood and brains on the wall.  Ricky and Jane, startled, come downstairs ready to flee, and see Lester at the table.  Ricky stops to stare into Lester’s face, which has a peaceful look on it.
  • In voiceover narration, Lester talks about the last second of his life, reflecting positively on his family, his relationships with people, and happiness.

(Note: In trying to better construct these bullet lists of scene, I am now attempting to make each bullet point contain only the turning point of each scene, and whatever context is necessary to describe it.  This will hopefully focus my summary of the story and the process of writing it, as well as helping me analyze that dynamic in (most) film scenes.)

Technicals

The central plot of the movie is Lester’s transformation from an unhappy dissatisfied schlub to a fulfilled, happy individual.  Alongside this are the subplots of a love story between Jane and Ricky, Carolyn’s love story with Buddy Kane, and the emotional destruction of Frank Fitts.

Within the broad category of “drama,” I would classify this foremost as an education plot, the first one looked at on this blog.  I would also say it is a balance between an archplot and a miniplot.

We have the inciting incident occurring when Lester sees Angela at the basketball game.  The crisis is when Lester seduces Angela, and the climax is when he stops before going all the way with her.  Worded clunkily, I would posit the controlling idea to be “True happiness comes not from seeking after material goods or maintaining appearances, but it arrives when what is inside you is allowed to be freely expressed.”

The Ending

Endings seem to always provide fertile grounds for discussion, and this one is no different, so I’ll say a few words about the ending here.

Given that the inciting incident is Lester’s first sighting of Angela, the obligatory scene that we imagine is when he finally does get her.  This happens in due time, and we recognize a deep change in him by his choice not to have sex with Angela.  This I would classify as the climactic action of the film—he has moved from being basically a needy, selfish teenager to a responsible father, but one who also understands himself and the world much better.

And yet the seemingly even bigger action happens next: Frank murders Lester.  How do the writers solve the problem of a potentially bigger, more important action following the climax?

Perhaps this means that the climax is in fact Lester’s murder.  A part of me wants to assent to that, given the finality and brutal power of that action, but I think there are several reasons why it is not the true climax.  For one, we knew from the start of the movie that Lester was going to die, and we were even reminded at the start of the third act that this was the last day of his life, which somewhat lessens the shock of the outcome.  We know it’s coming, but we don’t know how.

More importantly, though, his death comes after his transformation takes place: his purpose in life has already been restored, and he has achieved peace with both life and death.  This is made clear in his closing monologue, as he expresses “gratitude for every minute of his stupid little life.”  Still, we may wonder, isn’t he sad that he died, especially right after he came to realize his love for his family?  The film takes an interesting metaphysical position that he has not yet died, but that the last second of his life stretches on and on as he relives the best memories of his life.  Not too bad a fate, eh?

All in all, Lester’s death provides a dark contrast to the positive change within Lester.  Without it, the movie would probably come off as sappy and Disney-esque.  Instead, it provides one of the great bittersweet endings I know of in film.

The presentation of the reactions of all the characters also provides a good deal of satisfaction in the resolution sequence.

The Characters

One area in which the film potentially stumbles in is the verisimilitude of its characters’ actions.  The characters in some way are not real; they do not act like real people we would ever see.  Lester’s sarcasm, though very enjoyable to watch, is not very realistic.  How could a guy have gotten through life acting the way he acts when his boss talks to him at the start, or when he meets Buddy Kane at the real estate party?  Ricky, though we love his character, would probably also not be able to get through a week in his monk-like demeanor.  Who could live without laughter, without levity, without having friends at school?  And Ricky’s mother is practically a walking catatonic.  We know people who are shy, who are quiet, who seem to spend all their time wrapped up in their dolor.  But no one in Ricky’s family seems to do anything about it.  Frank doesn’t even act like he’s noticed.

Yet not only is the story credible, but, even more, engrossing.  How is this?

Perhaps as we watch the film, the characters strike us not as merely normal people, but extrapolations of types of behavior and lifestyles that we are familiar with: the dreariness of a spotless life in the suburbs, emotional atrophy, the man who hates his job.  These qualities we spy in people in our daily lives are given personification in the characters of American Beauty.  Lester, Frank, and Ricky’s mom are extreme representations of these qualities.  (Carolyn’s behavior, however, does not actually strike me as so farfetched.)  Ricky, the one character who is different, who seems to recognize what is true and what is good, is an extreme on the other side.

Does this detract from the film?  Whether or not the characters’ behavior is believable, it is certainly emotionally stirring.  Yet does the fact that it is emotionally affecting to watch mean that the story is also believable to us, on some level?  I think the answer must be yes, here.  The reason that this movie resonates so much is that we know it to be true in a very powerful way.

Symbolism

American Beauty is aided in its story telling by a rich palette of symbolism.

Most prominent among these is the color red.  Redness adorns everything that characters seek after in their superficial quest for American beauty: Carolyn and Angela’s lipstick (Jane always wears a deep maroon), decorations in Brad’s office, Lester’s red sports car, the uniforms of the fast food restaurant, the front door of the Burnham’s house, Carolyn’s ear muffs at the gun range and her dress on the last day of the movie, Buddy Kane’s real estate signs, the lamps in the motel room where Carolyn and Buddy rendezvous.

The most common red element in the film is roses, which appear throughout (the particular species of rose, by the way, is called “American Beauty”).  Carolyn is tending to her rose garden the first time we see her onscreen, and she keeps the house fully stocked with roses in vases.  Lester, meanwhile, connects roses, and rose petals especially, with Angela, the blue-eyed blonde conventional beauty who becomes his obsession.  Roses are ubiquitous in his fantasies about Angela, providing some of the most striking and memorable imagery in film.

The use of color in general tells its own story in the film.  Characters who are truly alive inside live in spaces that are colorful and bright: Jane’s bedroom, Lester’s den in the garage.  Contrast these with each family’s house, Lester’s office, and most of the other locations in the movie.  Even the colors are more vivid at school when Jane agrees to walk home with Ricky versus when she first meets him.

Ricky’s room, however, is the singularly most sparse, black-and-white space in the film.  Though he is certainly a character who is alive inside, the room reflects his stark personality.

The American dream, of course, also includes guns, a recurring device in the film, a source of power and pleasure.  And Frank, shattered by what he believes is Lester’s corruption of his son and then rejection of himself at his moment of great vulnerability, fights back the only way that his beliefs tell him to.  And Lester, laying dead in a pool of blood on his table top, his brains splattered in bright red on the wall, reminds us that here is one more aspect of the dark side of American life we don’t like to think about.  Not many people we know, of course, get brutally murdered, but America is also home to probably the highest gun violence and homicide rates in the first world.

We also see numerous images of death throughout the film, foreshadowing Lester’s death and contrasting with the abundant humor in the script.  Though the film takes place in three periods withing the space of a whole year, the trees in the neighborhood are always barren, the grass mottled with yellow on the Burnham’s front lawn.  Ricky, of course, has no fear of death, and repeatedly faces or describes facing death, and finding the beauty in it.  (He also stoops to take in the view of Lester’s dead body, with a mystical serene smile on his face.)  Ricky’s mother is positively zombie-like, and indeed is always clad in white, as if she were already a ghost.

American Beauty is one of the landmark films of our generation, portraying the emptiness of American life with power and beauty, yet avoiding cliché by mixing with it an inspiring message about the presence of beauty all around us, if we just look closer.

All the President’s Men (1976)

Here, for those who don’t know, is the movie retelling of the Watergate saga.  I added this to the list on my own because I read the book in 2007 and liked it so much.  (I also bought the DVD probably over a year ago somewhere, I’m sure I just found it cheap, and had never watched it.)

The story is quite successful in terms of emotional power.  What begins as a simple investigation into some numbskulls who got caught breaking into a political office spirals credibly to the highest reaches of power in America, and the fate of the Constitution and the country depend on the power of two inexperienced but driven reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.  (Here’s what they look like in real life.)  As one of the interviewees in the making-of featurette on the DVD said, Hollywood couldn’t have made up this story.

Sequence: burglars caught

  • President Nixon returns from China; addresses Congress
  • Burglars caught at Watergate office building

Sequence: B, W placed together on story

  • Woodward assigned to cover arraignment of Watergate burglars; finds out they have worked for CIA, their attorney Markham is evasive and doesn’t explain why he’s there
  • Woodward links burglars to Hunt, Hunt distressed.
  • Post editors debate whether to give story to more senior reporters, Harry keeps it with Woodstein
  • Woodward and Bernstein pair up on story

Sequence: first story not successful

  • Bernstein finds out from girl that Hunt was researching Ted Kennedy
  • Woodward & Bernstein encounter senseless lying and denial from White House librarian and Ken Clawson about Howard Hunt
  • Try to investigate Hunt’s Library of Congress records, but his history has been removed from records
  • Bradlee cuts down their story on Hunt, not enough hard information

Sequence: W gets DT as source

  • Woodward tries to call Deep Throat for help on investigation, DT does not talk on phone but gives him instructions on meeting in person secretly
  • Woodward meets with DT in parking garage, DT says to follow the money

Sequence: W,B successfully connect money to Stans

  • Bernstein goes to Miami, waits all day outside office then finally gets to look at records and finds name of Kenneth Dahlberg
  • W calls Dahlberg, KD very upset, but reveals that he gave cashier’s check to Stans; big story for W and B

Sequence: editors doubt story

  • Editors at Post are partially against the Watergate story, think it’s too incredible to be true, very dangerous for paper
  • Bradlee questions W and B why he should continue with the story

Sequence: failures trying to talk to CREEP employees

  • W,B get list of CREEP employees from woman
  • Go to Betty Miland’s home, she is unhappy they are there, afraid of being watched, but does talk about document shredding that took place under John Mitchell’s supervision
  • Get turned away by everyone they try to talk to, the people seem to be under pressure not to talk to them.  One woman finally does talk to them happily, turns out to be a mistaken identity, isn’t connected to story
  • W,B stuck.  Find out from Harry next day that GAO report they were counting on postponed

Sequence: Finally get good information from a bookkeeper

  • B interviews a bookkeeper, she nervous, but gives him a lot of info, initials of men who controlled cash fund
  • WB devour information, make plan to go back to her and trick her into giving names
  • Trick works, she gives them several more names

Sequence: Run explosive story on John Mitchell

  • In reaction to story, Attorney General admits he did not know about paper shredding after Dept of Justice investigation
  • Sloan tells W,B fund was about $1 million, won’t give last two names
  • Bradlee angry that WB don’t have any on-the-record sources.  B calls Mitchell, gets negative reaction quote to story
  • Bradlee talks with WB, asks for more detail on DT, tells them to run Mitchell story
  • Next day, they watch on TV Spiro Agnew’s “non-denial denial” response

Sequence: Interview Segretti, pressure increasing

  • B’s FBI friend Joe tells him FBI is wondering how WB getting their info, then tricks B into being photographed
  • B has break in case re: Donald Segretti
  • Segretti reveals more of CREEP’s strategies
  • DT tells W they are getting close to bringing the scandal inside the WH, interrupted by screeching car leaving garage, W, paranoid, walks all the way home

Sequence: Ken Clawson Canuck letter story

  • Sally tells WB that KC wrote Canuck letter, KC non-denies, then begs Bradlee not to print that he was at Sally’s apartment

Sequence: Haldeman story inaccurate

  • WB try to get confirmation from Sloan on Haldeman’s involvement, Sloan gives roundabout affirmation
  • Bradlee forces them to get another source on Haldeman, B gets flimsy confirmation from Justice source, story runs
  • Barrage of denial next day: misstep

Sequence: DT warns them they are under surveillance, now in danger

  • Joe won’t talk to WB, they suspect they were set up
  • W meets with DT, DT says their lives are now in danger, then gives a load of info and direction
  • W tells B they are in danger, under surveillance and bugging; B tells W that they were right that Haldeman was involved, but it turns out that the FBI did not investigate Haldeman at all
  • W,B talks to Bradlee, he tells them they are in danger, the future of country depends on their work, go sleep then get back to work.

Sequence: working while no one else does, they close the case on Nixon

  • As time rolls on, they sit at their desks typing and typing.  Later headlines shown on screen, Nixon eventually resigns in 1974

Technicals/Overall Story Structure

The central plot is that of Woodward and Bernstein working to uncover the truth in the Watergate affair.  One subplot is the conflict between the editors and the reporters of the Washington Post over the importance of the story: whether it should be given to another reporter and whether it is worthwhile for the paper to pursue it at all.  Another subplot is that of Woodward and Bernstein learning to work together as a team.

The controlling idea is “With great effort and care, the truth may be discovered.”

The inciting incident comes in two parts: first, when the burglars are caught by the police, and then when Woodward is assigned to cover the story.  Regarding the obligatory scene and climax, see the “ending” section below.

This story, as you see, I broke down into sequences, but not acts.  Once I watched it a second time and looked over my notes, I find any meaningful act divisions.  I am quite happy to hear what anyone else makes of this, but my conclusion is that three-act structure doesn’t really fit this story.

What we have instead are a series of “movements” back and forth.  Once the story gets started, this cycle essentially repeats: Woodward and Bernstein search for more clues, encounter difficulty, figure something out, write a story, then repeat.  Roger Ebert, in fact, criticizes the movie over this:

All of these elements in “All the President’s Men” are to be praised, and yet they don’t quite add up to a satisfying movie experience. Once we’ve seen one cycle of investigative reporting, once Woodward and Bernstein have cracked the first wall separating the break-in from the White House, we understand the movie’s method. We don’t need to see the reporting cycle repeated several more times just because the story grows longer and the sources more important. For all of its technical skill, the movie essentially shows us the same journalistic process several times as it leads closer and closer to an end we already know.

I have done some reading lately on criticism of the three-act structure (namely, these articles, linked from here: one, two, three, and four).  To these writers, the supposed three-act structure of a screenplay is a relic of writing for the theater, but makes no sense for film, and is the cause of many problems for screenwriters who try to hew to it at the expense of understanding their story on its own unique terms.

To keep my commentary on this point brief, I agree that the three-act structure is not right for all films (present film being an example), but it is a useful general template for a feature film, and it is up to each writer to figure out how to apply it and vary it if needed.  Besides that, based on everything I’ve heard, three-act is the standard in film writing today.  Whether these critics like it or not, it’s what’s in use by the great majority of writers, and it seems to be doing okay.  If a screenplay is poorly written, I would argue that the problem is not that the writer used a flawed model but rather that the writer was not imaginative enough overall.

The story does range through four variations on the primary story value, truth.  In the positive form, we have truth itself.  The obvious negative of this is falsehood: all the denials and lies told by the president’s men.  The contrary position is indifference: an unwillingness by some at the paper to pursue the story, and ignorant disbelief by seemingly the whole public.  Lastly, the negation of the negation is the coverup of the truth perpetrated by Nixon and the FBI and Department of Justice–an obfuscation of reality deeper than Woodward or Bernstein could have ever imagined when embarking on the story.

Besides truth, the story also pivots on their own personal safety.  Throughout most of the film, they are safe, unthreatened.  Paranoia starts creeping in, providing a contrary feeling to their safety.  Finally at the end, personal harm becomes a real threat, providing a negative form of this story value.  I cannot find a negation of the negation to this.

The ending

The most pressing question after watching this movie is “What’s with the ending?”  All the President’s Men seems almost like a half-formed story, dropping out right when the stakes are raised to a new high.  The plot of the movie involves Woodward and Bernstein digging deeper and deeper to discover the truth about the Watergate break-in.  Logically, the audience would expect to see a climax where the reporters finally uncover a piece of evidence that undeniably reaches to the bottom of the Watergate plot: something implicating Nixon himself.  Having obtained this evidence, in the resolution we would see the damning story run in the newspaper, and Nixon finally being forced from office.  Yet the story brings us to a new high of antagonism then stops—we see them working at their typewriters, then a stream of headlines from the story culminating in Nixon’s resignation.  Why did they do it this way?

To begin with, a couple of real-life limitations may have affected this choice.  First, the story itself is huge, with a huge amount of detail and intricacy involved to tell it with justice.  A key goal of the film, which I think they adhered to was authenticity—details of the true events were not changed to make a better Hollywood story.  Yet it probably wouldn’t be possible to tell the whole story from burglary to Nixon’s resignation in the time of a feature film and still make you feel for the characters.  The emphasis of this film was on the enormous volume of work that the investigation required of Woodward and Bernstein.  Shrinking the whole story from top to bottom to fit in one film might unduly make it seem that they practically just waltzed from story to story until Nixon resigned.

Another restriction imposed by the real-life material was that Woodward and Bernstein’s investigative work occupied a secondary role after a certain point in the unraveling of the Watergate scandal.  As depicted in the movie, the real life Watergate story was a battle of credibility for the Washington Post, as they carried the story virtually alone, while most outsiders, and even some other Post editors, doubted there was any truth to it.  Woodward and Bernstein eventually won this battle for recognition, and the story became unignorable.  From that point, the investigation was picked up by a Senate committee and special prosecutor.  So from a certain perspective, All the President’s Men is the tale of Woodward and Bernstein’s fight to bring the matter to public attention, which was a success, and in this sense it’s logical to stop the action of the story at a point before Nixon resigns.

(I also may as well add that the book was written before Nixon resigned, and therefore does not include Nixon’s resignation either.)

Yet there ought to be other reasons why Pakula and Goldman stop the story where they do.  Being told by Ben Bradlee that they need to get back to the office and work harder, knowing now that their lives may be in danger, does not equate to attaining their object of desire, the full truth.  How can the film just drop off and leave us like that?  Let’s analyze this by asking some strategic questions.

Is this an anticlimax?  I would not call this an anticlimax so much as a “nonclimax.”  Though all these dramatic terms are somewhat fuzzy and don’t fit onto any two original stories the same, an anticlimax requires an unforeseen resolution of the ending in “gentle” violation of the rules of the story.  The only anticlimax I have up here to compare is Alice in Wonderland.  In that film, Alice escapes from Wonderland by waking up from her dream.  Although that could be considered a bit of a cheat, we are happy with it, because (a) we expect a happy ending, and could not plausibly see how Alice would get out of Wonderland alive through her own power, and (b) the revelation that Wonderland was all a dream actually makes sense of the possible story hole of how Wonderland can coexist with the real world.  That’s not what’s going on here.  Rather, it’s more like the climax was just skipped over.

Do we need to reevaluate what the movie is truly about, i.e., what the central plot is? It could be, for instance, that either the final Deep Throat meeting or the lawn scene with Bradlee is the climax of a story thread that I haven’t identified.  Indeed, there are some aspects of the story where a definite, irreversible change takes place from the start to the end.  The primary one is the crystallization of the Washington Post team.  Woodward and Bernstein are a fractious duo at the beginning, and it takes a long time before they gain Bradlee’s trust and respect, but they certainly have done so in the final scene on Ben Bradlee’s lawn.  Deep Throat, too, has been goaded into divulging more information, and sticking his neck on the line for them.  So Woodward and Bernstein have definitely grown by the end, and built the kernel of support that they need to carry on.  But this still doesn’t make the final revelation by Deep Throat a story climax.  It could be read, I would argue, as a crisis event, forcing them to a final effort which ultimately succeeds, and in a way this is what happens.  But again, the difficulty is that that success is off screen.

What is the resolution, if any, in the film?  Factually, the resolution is there: we see that Nixon resigns.  But is that all we need?  Definitely not.  If so, watching a documentary, or even reading the Wikipedia article, would be a better way to learn the information.  Robert McKee says that story is a metaphor for life.  The point of this story is not the specific facts of how Nixon lost his presidency, but how two young reporters struggled against all odds to uncover the facts.  Truth vs. power; outsiders vs. the system.  That is the reason we watch the movie, and is the reason it resonates with us.  The mere facts relate to the specifics of the story to provide resolution, (and every story needs to have specifics), but they are not the same as an actual climax.

In spite of all this narrative semantics talk, though, arguably the only important question is whether the ending satisfies.  Imagine if the movie Titanic brought us up to 20 minutes before the ship sank, and then returned to the present-day submarine and old Rose just says “And the ship went down and Jack froze to death.  That’s it.”  Not much payoff for all that was built up to.  (That was a spoiler, by the way, in case you haven’t seen it.)  That’s what resolution is about.  It’s a lot like sex: we want a big climax, followed by a period of basking, and that’s it.

And my verdict is that this movie does not deliver that.  It would have been a challenge to pull off, granted, butI think this movie really would have been better if it had a climactic scene and some kind of resolution.  This film skips the obligatory scene, and you can’t do that, because that scene is obligatory.

How might it have ended better?  As mentioned before, it would have perhaps been unfeasible to show them struggling all the way up to Nixon’s resignation, and we certainly wouldn’t want to see a “one year later” jump in time just to show them bringing down Nixon.  In fact, such a definite and positive ending would probably be inappropriate for this film—a little too rosy, a little too “Hollywood.”

But an ending needn’t go that far to be satisfying.  For example, a great deal is made in the film of trying to clinch someone “inside the White House,” namely Haldeman.  For all that this is discussed and set up as a goal worth achieving, it never happens.  A suitable ending could be made of finally cementing his involvement in the coverup, making clear the implication that this story was going to go all the way to Nixon.  Just show the streams of water shooting out between the bricks of a dyke: total collapse is inevitable.

Despite all these reservations, I loved this movie, as I loved the book, and look forward to more from all the principals.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Here’s our next “classic” movie — a definite film masterpiece, and the first major statement about war in the cinema, perhaps.  McKee left this off his list; I’m not sure why, but it could just be that he had to leave tons of great ones off because the list was already so long, which would be easily understandable.  The acting in this film is corny at parts; I read in one place that this was a result of the transition from silent to talking film.  This seems plausible; indeed film was still maturing at this point, and the differences between film and stage acting were still being grasped, and the spectacle of film was probably so new that it took a generation to grow up with film to really allow the form to come into its own.  But enough of my own idle speculations on that subject.

I have been so busy lately I haven’t been able to keep up with doing this.  I’m really looking to make film my priority after this last stretch of different kinds of work this month.  (I drafted most of this prior to June 20; since then I went to a five-day convention in Charlotte, NC, and now I’m at my folks’ house in Georgia, where I do have time to give to this again.)  This is time consuming, and I’m not sure of the quality of my work here, but I can at least feel safe that it’s better than some of the critics and bloggers I’ve found out there.  In fact, it’s kind of sad: I search the internet, and wordpress, for in-depth analysis of the films I’m posting about on here, but all I usually find is a bunch of “cinema-lover” bloggers who post about whether they thought the movie was “good.”  Perhaps a star count or a number of thumbs up or down and a paragraph of commentary on the acting.  The type of writing you would expect from a fifth grade essay with the title “Why I liked this movie.”  Some just have no effort put into them, some are just sad.

Besides the delay in watching and analyzing the film, this post has also been maybe a week in the making.  Every time I sit down to write out more of the story in the bullet list format, I get bogged down and unhappy with trying to summarize a complex story.  So I’ve decided to try doing these posts without the long story summary; it doesn’t seem like it was worth the amount of effort it took.  (I had also tried to do a post on the movie Alive, which I also watched, but gave up for the same reason, and because that movie wasn’t that good.)

The purpose that that section was supposed to serve, however, was to try to show how the movie could be broken down into scenes, sequences, and acts.  I think this is still important, and I wonder if there’s a way it could still be done on here.  Maybe I could provide the act and sequence breakdown only, or something.  I’m certainly still going to keep track of all that on paper, but it’s just too hard to type it up and post it here at that level of detail.  So starting next film, I’ll maybe do that.

Moving on to business, this film presented some frustration to me at first, similar to Alice in Wonderland and After Hours.  It seemed to resist the story analysis as I have been doing it so far, then I realized — specifically at the part where Paul sits in the hospital and meets Hammacher, a somewhat bizarre character who just enters and exits the story — that this film is an Antiplot.  The sequences of backwards and forwards fighting, the disconnected characters and episodes Paul goes through, and the overall controlling idea of the movie all point to the existential absurdity of a negative antiplot.

I think the reason it took me so long to realize this was somewhat due to a prejudice of mine.  I somehow believed that that far back in film, people still had a very classical worldview, believing in a purpose of life, of personal struggle, even of war.  Perhaps I supposed that filmmakers had not yet arrived at what I perhaps consider a more “mature” philosophy of nihilism.  McKee in his book also states that antiplot came about mainly after World War II, which may or may not be true, although I don’t think that statement influenced my thinking here.  I had just assumed a war classic from 1930 would probably be some kind of heroic tale.  Yet throughout, we see that coincidence more than cause determines these characters’ fates.  No one knows where each falling mortar shell is going to hit; no one knows when the roof might cave in and kill all the men.  It’s totally up to dumb luck who survives a frontal trench assault in this movie’s world.

The story conveys the controlling idea that war is a meaningless waste of life.  The boys march off to war full of conviction; they soon discover that life on the front is devoid of purpose.  They sit for days, weeks, months, in dugout bunkers for no clear purpose.  The illusion of valiant battle vanishes quickly for them, as battle against the French turns out to be a bloody back and forth.  Note that the scenes at training camp show them being taught to march around in circles; this foreshadows the circular battle scenes that ultimately end up with both sides back in their original positions.

The film contains a pretty remarkable image system of live burial.  (I proudly count this as the first time I have independently discovered an image system in a film I analyzed, and it feels mighty fine.)  To start with, at the very beginning, after the boys march out of school to join the army, the shot comes to rest on the empty, still classroom, which looks like a scene of chaos, and the dual rows of wooden desks resemble coffins.  On their first night out laying wire, Kat advises them how to dodge bombs by saying “Mother Earth: press yourselves down upon her.  Bury yourselves deep within her!”  The boys are then moved to their dugout in the trenches, a situation that, to them, stops being merely a symbolic live burial as the roof caves in at one point during bombing.

During the second battle scene, Paul takes shelter in a church graveyard.  Amid the falling bombs and flying tombstones, he falls into a crater with an unearthed, broken coffin, exposing the human remains inside.  Through the framing of the shot, we see him actually inside the coffin.  Another explosion dumps dirt onto him, and he jumps back out, frightened.  Finally, when Paul returns back to the schoolhouse, in his speech to the young students, he says “Our bodies are earth, and our thoughts are clay, and we sleep and eat with death.”  There are perhaps more images there to find, if you search.  (I discovered this system during my second watching, so it also follows McKee’s admonition that an image system must be subtle enough to work only on the subconscious level.  As soon as you realize that there is an image system at play in a film, you think “Ah, I see what the director did there,” and the story loses its impact.  This makes it hard, I think, to actually find image systems, since you really aren’t supposed to notice them.  You can’t watch a movie looking out for them, or you’re not really paying attention to the story itself.  I think part of the problem with English high school education in this country is that it sort of teaches kids to approach books as puzzles that you have to unlock.  “Oh, here’s this symbolic scheme!  Oh, this is a metaphor for this actually happening!”  Appreciating literature is not being able to decode books like that on reading; the purpose of doing that is to understand what makes a book work so well.  It’s the same here in a movie, so you first have to watch just trying to listen to the story.  On a second viewing, if it comes, you have opportunities to look more closely at everything happening.)

I think one more recurring image in the film, counterposed against the horror of live burial, is that of peaceful death.  Almost always when we see someone lying down in the film, soon to die, they are covered in an angelic white sheet: Kemerick, the boys in the medical ward, Paul’s mother (who is ill when he visits), and Paul himself before he returns to the front line.  Early on, the older soldier Westhus muses about the cherry trees on his farm at home.  When the cherries are in bloom, he says, it looks like one great “white sheet.”  The soldiers fantasize about death because it is the one way for them to attain peace again.  Paul even tells the French soldier that he’s trapped in a foxhole with, after he kills him, that the man is lucky to be dead.

The crisis moment of the film comes when Katczinsky dies.  In the climax Paul, having lost all meaning and purpose, reaches for a beautiful butterfly in the midst of a trench battle.  He is immediately sniped by an enemy soldier (a jolting moment even when you know it’s coming) and dies.

Well this is a subpar post, and this movie deserves better, but I’m just gonna finally post it.  By the way: anyone have any idea who the guy on the poster is??  He doesn’t look like anyone in the movie.

Adam’s Rib (1949)

Adam's Rib

This is the first old movie on the list.  Old black-and-white movies are something you grow up around, but not usually seeing too much of unless one seeks them out.  I’d never seen a Katharine Hepburn movie before, and probably never heard of Spencer Tracy, or at least didn’t know who he was.  (My mom has now greatly recommended me to go watch On Golden Pond now.  That’s way down the list.)  It will be interesting as this project goes on to see more deeply what the art of cinema was like in the Golden Age of Hollywood.  All of today’s major genres, at least as far as I can think of, were established by that time.  Will what was funny in a romantic comedy then still seem funny now?  Will the movies that scared audiences shitless back then still do so today, when CGI effects make anything imaginable possible on screen?  Essentially, if story itself is immortal, how will the story in old films come off today?  A well-told story should ideally be as powerful one hundred years later as it was when the film was first premiered.  Adam’s Rib begins my investigation of this.

I would classify the movie as a courtroom drama and a romantic comedy.  The plot concerns the married couple of Adam and Amanda Bonner, both lawyers.  Adam has to prosecute a woman accused of attempting to kill her husband when she discovered him cheating.  When Amanda hears the specifics of the case, she is affronted by what she perceives as society’s unequal treatment of men and women, believing that no man would ever be brought to trial for what the woman did.  Amanda takes on defending the woman as her cause, and Adam and Amanda battle the issue out in court and at home.

Story Analysis

Act I

Sequence: Doris shoots Warren

  • A woman follows her husband unseen through the streets of New York one day after work.  She follows him to an apartment building where she bars the door and follows him in, still unnoticed.  Inside, she pulls a gun out of her purse and bursts into an apartment to find him on a couch with another woman, kissing her.  The kissing couple see her and immediately are scared and jump up.  The husband tries to reason with her, but Doris, the wife, puts her head down and starts shooting.  She shoots several rounds, one of which catches her husband, after which she starts crying and drops the gun.  The other woman then runs to the door and yells for help.

Sequence: Adam and Amanda take opposite sides on trial

  • The power couple of Adam and Amanda Bonner, both lawyers, are awoken the next morning by their maid, and find on the front pages of their newspapers the story of Doris Attinger, the woman who tried to shoot her husband.  Their reactions to the news story differ, with Adam despairing that anyone should be walking around the city carrying a loaded gun, while Amanda at least finds some sympathy with the woman for having done what lots of men probably would have done in the same situation.  They continue their discussion of the event as Amanda drives them both to work.  Amanda’s grievance is that society seems to permit men to do certain things and not women, and wonders “why let this deplorable system carry over into courts of law?”
  • At work, Adam, an assistant prosecutor in the New York District Attorney’s office, finds out that he’s been handed the Attinger case.  Though his men reassure him the case will be a cinch, he moans that it’s “the one case I doesn’t want.”
  • Meanwhile at her office, private defense attorney Amanda asks her assistant what she thinks about the event.  Her assistant also seems to hold the belief that while it’s not nice but understandable for a husband to cheat on his wife, it’s “something terrible” for the wife to cheat on the husband.  The double standard continues to bother Amanda, when she suddenly gets a phone call from her husband, who tells her with a laugh that he’s been chosen to prosecute the Attinger woman.  When he continues to laugh and belittle her negative reaction, she hangs up the phone and declares that she’s taking the case of Doris Attinger.

Sequence: Adam discovers they are opposing each other in the trial, lines drawn in sand

  • That very day, Adam goes to the hospital to meet Warren, the injured husband of Doris Attinger, to interview him and get facts on the case.  Warren sits back in the bed, his shoulder in a cast, and loudly complains that the whole reason for Doris’ attack is simply that she’s “crazy.”  He does not take the interview seriously, answering Adam’s questions with sarcasm and a sense of self-entitlement.  Beryl Caighn, the woman he’d been cheating with, sits behind him, patting his head and even holding his cigarette for him.
  • Amanda, meanwhile, goes to the jail to talk to Doris.  Doris is deferent in her answers and almost too polite to Amanda and her secretary.  She tells Amanda the story of her failed marriage to Warren and that she began to suspect he was with another woman when he stopped beating her.  She then recounts her actions on the previous day: after Warren did not come home at night for the fourth night in a row, she had finally had enough.  She took her children to school, then bought a gun at a hock shop.  (The nice man there even gave her an instruction book, as she didn’t even know how to use the trigger.)  She followed Warren at lunch, tried to call him at work and angered him, then went to wait for him.  When she states that she wanted to kill him, Amanda interjects, “Suppose we wait until later to decide what you wanted to do.”  She quizzes her about what she did at Beryl’s apartment.  Doris explains that she didn’t want to kill Warren or Beryl, but only to scare Beryl away.  She doesn’t remember much of the event though, because the whole thing felt like a “dream,” a point Amanda makes sure her assistant writes down.
  • Adam returns home that night late with a gift as Amanda and the maid prepare the dining table for a dinner party that night.  She passes by him in a hurry without accepting his kiss on the cheek, instead telling him to get ready, the guests will be arriving in twenty minutes.  Upstairs, he leaves the gift out for her to find it.  She does, and opens the box to find a flowered bonnet.  She loves it, and he lovingly tells her it’s the best hat in the world, “for the best head.”
  • Company starts arriving before they can finish sharing the moment.  As the party gets underway, Adam helps get trays of drinks together.  At the bar, he listens to Amanda talking to a friend who is a judge, telling him about her new case.  Aware that Adam is right behind her and doesn’t know yet, she sheepishly tells the judge that she’s just taken on the case of defending Doris Attinger.  Adam hears this and drops the tray of drinks, spinning to look at her.
  • The guests then all gather to watch Adam and Amanda’s home movies.  The film shows comic images of Adam and Amanda on vacation at their house in Connecticut, including one scene where they make the last mortgage payment on the property.  Among the guests is the across-the-hall neighbor Kip, a flamboyant Broadway composer who openly covets Amanda.  Kip makes wry, mocking comments at every scene, as Adam sits sulking in a chair.  Amanda notices Adam’s bad mood, and worries about what she may have done.
  • After the party, Amanda brings the issue up with him.  Adam pleads with Amanda to please, just drop the case.  He knows it’s going to be a media firestorm if they are on opposite sides of the case, but she tells him again that she’s going to get Doris freed the same as any man would go free.  In his emotion, Adam starts mixing up his syllables while speaking, which she poo-poohs by saying he’s so “cute when excited.”  Finally, Adam ends the argument with the promise to cut her up into 12 little pieces and feed her to the jury if she stays on the case.  A tense moment, then they turn the lights out, hug and kiss, and go to bed.

Act II

Sequence: Amanda brings new challenges to him on several levels

  • Before the proceedings even begin on the first day at court, Adam is surprised and dismayed to see Doris enter the courtroom wearing the hat he got Amanda.  The judge begins the jury selection process, and Adam briefly questions a juror and accepts.  Amanda then asks whether the juror believes in equal rights for women, to which he replies “certainly not,” and she throws him out.  Adam is thrown off, realizing he’s facing a barrage of new, somewhat cutthroat, tactics from his wife.
  • Getting home that night, Adam acts reserved and avoids Amanda’s kiss.  She follows him and tries to find out what’s wrong.  Finally, while cooking dinner, he asks her again, more gently, to drop the case, but she refuses again.
  • Just as they’re about to eat, Kip knocks on the door, and Adam lets him in.  Kip comes straight to sit by Amanda at the table, praising her about her front page coverage in the newspapers, and hoping she’ll win.  Adam sits wordless through the meal, then Kip finally says he wrote a song for Amanda, and goes to play it for them on the piano.  “Farewell, Amanda” is another strong come-on to Amanda; she sits laughing, accepting his praise and adoration, as Adam sits sternly.

Sequence: Testimonies of Beryl, Warren, and Doris

  • The next day in court, Warren Attinger’s other woman Beryl sits on the stand to be questioned.  After Adam’s factual, perfunctory questions, Amanda viciously discredits and embarrasses Beryl, forcing to her to admit that she was wearing a black silk negligee when Warren came over, virtually overturning her story that Warren was only there to sell her insurance.
  • She then quizzes Warren about how he has behaved toward Doris in his marriage.  Warren admits he doesn’t ever get Doris any gifts, and that he hits her.  When Warren claims not to recall immediately whether he got his wife anything for her birthday, she says that “husbands remember their gifts,” a stab at Adam who sees Doris once again wearing the hat he gave to Amanda.  He then baldly states that he stopped loving Doris several years before, when she started getting too fat, which brings her to tears.  Amanda concludes simply by asking him whether he considers himself a good husband.  Warren sits straight in his chair and earnestly tells her that he does.
  • Adam then takes his turn with Warren, asking more details about the marriage.  Warren claims that Doris also hit him often, shoving him into doors, attacking him whenever he went to sleep.  Warren claims to have been made into a nervous wreck by Doris.
  • Questioning of Doris follows. Amanda asks her about the day of the shooting.  Doris retells the story of the attack, how she was too nervous to take careful aim, and did not intend to kill anybody.  Amanda moves in for the money shot, and asks why Doris did it then; Doris finally cries, “I have three children — she was breakin’ up my home!”  The court is audibly stirred.
  • While Doris is still crying, Adam begins his cross-examination.  Unsympathetically, he chides her for her behavior, for hitting her husband.  Amanda breaks him off by objecting, and they get into a personal argument in court, ending by quoting the poet Cosgrave, yelling over both Adam and the judge, who is trying to establish order.
  • That night at home, they trade relaxing backrubs with each other.  Adam turns on the radio to look for news, but the song “Farewell Amanda” is playing instead.  He leaves it on, then turns it off when Amanda starts humming along.  Provoked, he finally slaps her on the bottom, hard.  She recoils and covers herself, stunned at his actual display of violence.  They argue about the case, with Adam saying that she is abusing the law in courtroom.  When Amanda starts crying, he then accuses her of using the female “juice,” tears, to try to get her way.  She kicks him in the leg and storms out of the room.

Sequence: Adam driven to leave the apartment

  • The next day in court, Amanda surprises everyone by bringing dozens of women to give testimony, whom she says can give a witness to the years, centuries, of women’s oppression by men.  The judge asks her to just do with three, so she brings up in order a highly qualified scientist, a construction foreman whose husband works under her, and an Olympic weightlifter/circus performer.  The last woman gives testimony to how she could lift up a man holding a 350-lb barbell in her circus act.  When Adam gets up to object to the judge, Amanda has the woman slip around behind him and suddenly lift him up.  She holds him up above her head, and the crowd erupts in uproars as the courtroom literally degenerates into a circus.
  • Amanda gets home late that night, carrying a gift in a box.  She finds Adam skulking on the couch, but when she sits down next to him, he gets up and walks away.  She follows him around through several rooms in the house, asking him what she’s done to hurt him.  She asks if she’s gone too far, well, hasn’t he ever done so as well? to which he says “Once.”  Moving into the closet, he finally opens up and tells her that she’s got contempt for the law.  “If a law is bad, then change it, don’t bust it wide open.”  Packing a suitcase, he tells her that marriage is also a law, a contract between two people, but lately he thinks it has not been fully upheld.  She finally shoves him into the door, which he takes as his cue to leave.  Holding the door open, she warns him not to slam it.  He slams it shut as hard as he can, knocking a painting off the wall and into a lamp, which hits the phonograph that starts playing “Farewell Amanda,” sitting out on it.

Act III

Sequence: Amanda wins

  • In court, Amanda begins her closing arguments.  She pleads with the jury to treat men and women with equality before the law, but differentiates between the law’s letter and spirit.  “Judge not whether the acts were committed, but whether they were justified,” she says.  “Any living being is capable of attack if provoked enough.”  She then asks the jury to imagine if the sexes of all the persons involved in the case were switched, how they would act.  What would be the view of a husband who went to another man’s apartment who had been seeing his wife, and shot off a few rounds to scare him off?  Would that not be treated as an everyday occurrence?
  • In his closing argument, Adam starts messing up his words, making Amanda snidely laugh at him, throwing him off even more.  She objects once more during his oration, and they descend once more into a heated personal argument in court.  He finally accuses her of having presented a false view of her defendant to the court, having coached her and costumed her — and produces the receipt for the hat to show that he paid for it himself, then demands the hat back and snatches it off of Doris’s head.
  • The next day, the jury decides not guilty.
  • The courtroom scene becomes chaotic once again, as press photographers start hounding all the persons involved in the trial for pictures.  They awkwardly force Warren and Doris to pose together, holding hands, then add Beryl to the mix, then the three children of Warren and Doris.  They also force Adam and Amanda together, neither of whom can force themselves to fully smile.  They exchange a few brief words, Amanda reminding Adam that they have an appointment together to go over their taxes with their accountant the next day,  then they leave separately.

Sequence: They decide to divorce

  • That night, Amanda has dinner with Kip in his apartment.  He continues to make more strong passes at her, especially now that her and Adam are seemingly split, but her mind is preoccupied with him.
  • Adam comes to the building to confront her once more.  Seeing her shadow through the window, he knows that she’s in Kip’s apartment.  He borrows the passkey from the elevator operator in a ruse, then, shockingly, draws a gun out before he opens the door.  He enters to find them in what looks like a passionate kiss (Kip was just trying to get her to try a stage kiss with him), and they freeze when they see the gun in his hand.  Kip hides behind Amanda, and she tries to reason with him.  She shouts at him that he can’t do that, he has no right.  He asks her to repeat that, and she does, but stops midsentence, realizing the contravention with her argument in the trial.  Adam then puts the gun in his mouth, and just when they think he’s going to shoot himself, he bites off the front of the gun: it’s made of licorice.
  • He sits down, smiling easily to himself, having proved what he wanted to prove.  The three soon begin shouting again, and begin to fight.  They exit the apartment, agreeing that they will settle their properties for a divorce with the accountant the next day as Amanda flees the building.

Act IV

Sequence: They reconcile

  • At the accountant’s office the next day, they sit far from each other, across the room, and avoid directly addressing each other or looking at each other.  The accountant names check purchases from the past year one-by-one for them to claim.  When they get to the final payment on the mortgage on their Connecticut house, Adam breaks down in tears.  Seeing his tears, Amanda finally feels remorse, rethinks their separation, then instead asks him if he wants to try to make it out to the country house by dinner time together.  They leave the accountant together, reconciled.
  • At the country house, they share much better spirits, the old magic of their marriage revived.  Adam tells Amanda that the heads of the Republican party want him to run for an open county judgeship, which race is almost a sure bet.  Amanda congratulates him, then begins to asks, jokingly, if the Democratic candidate is yet picked.  He tells her that he could stop her from running, she asks how, and he says by crying.  He then demonstrates how, like a woman, he knows how to cry to get what he wants.  The tears are real, the emotion is real, but it’s just manipulated some to get what he wants.
  • They ask whether men or women are really different after all.  Amanda settles that they are equal after all; he still believes there is a little difference.  Then he tells her, pulling the curtains on the bed shut with gusto, “Hooray for the difference!”

The plots of this film consist of: the strife in the Bonners’ marriage, which form the central plot; Kip’s pursuit of Amanda’s affection, which complicates the Bonners’ marriage difficulties; and the trial itself, which besides obviously instigating the problems in their union, also provides a contrast to the Bonners’ marriage by showing a completely failed marriage.

A difficulty I had in diagramming the story was deciding who should be regarded as the protagonist.  Perhaps it is Adam, who takes more willful actions in reaction to the unraveling of their relationship: he gives a gift, he leaves her, he scares her with the fake gun, and he cries to finally bring her back around.  But on the other hand, Amanda seems to take the lead more of the time: she decides to pursue the case (unlike Adam, who is elected to do so within the D.A. office), and it is her revelation and change in behavior at the end, in Jules’s office, that finally resolves the conflict in their relationship.

In my reading on this movie around the internet, I came across one page that provided a useful answer to this conundrum, which I vacillated on several times.  Some blog or page somewhere made reference to the idea of regarding Adam and Amanda’s love as the true protagonist, an idea which does work, and which I was beginning to guess at by the time I read it.  It is really their love we are rooting for; knowing that they have a good marriage, we do not desire to see one or the other prevail, which would be the case if only one of them were the protagonist.  Rather, the audience desires to see them level with one another, to preserve their marriage.  It seems that this is a convention of the romantic comedy genre; I am going to do more reading on it in a book called Writing the Romantic Comedy, which the NY Public Library luckily does have.

As far as my story analyzing goes, either McKee’s book differs from these movies, or I’m not getting fully what scenes are.  McKee says that a typical movie has 40-60 scenes; my breakdown here, where each bullet point is supposed to represent a scene, has 31.  A scene is supposed to be a “story event” according to his definition, meaning that it is an event in which at least one story value changes for a character: some event that creates meaningful change.  I tried to honestly break this down into the smallest bits I could that made sense, but still wind up with relatively few, and I know my past analyses also have had less than 40.  I’m not fully sure how important this even is, but if I want to be able to do it, I should probably understand it.  Perhaps some things that could have been broken down more would be the starting sequence, for example, where Doris pursues Warren and shoots him.  Perhaps the first event could be when she spots him leaving work, sparking her motivation and curiosity again.  She follows him through the city, and finally sees him go into an apartment building.  She is now standing inside the lair, pulling a gun out: the event is actual confrontation with the other woman, which crystallizes her anger and causes her to decide to go in and shoot up the room.  Doris then enters and does so, which is itself an event, resulting in the changes of being shot and frightened for Warren, being attacked and frightened for Beryl, and being overwhelmed by emotion for Doris, who collapses and does not attempt to flee.  Why does it matter that all of these things are divided as separate scenes, story wise?  The small events seem to really be of little consequence; it felt to me when looking over the story over all that the thing to really note about this is that Doris shoots Warren, which kicks off everything else.  Of course, as McKee does himself say, a sequence is supposed to bring about a moderate level change, while a scene is really only supposed to bring about minor change.  So perhaps I do need to take closer looks at what I have called large scenes that conclude sequences, and try to see how they can be broken up.

Aliens (1986)

Aliens

The sequel to Alien, which has been my favorite movie in this project so far.  The comparison between the two is an obvious one to make: this film continues the story, but the genre changes from horror to action.  The change naturally follows from the story: whereas in the first installment, a seven-person crew encountered a monster they were completely unprepared for, now a whole troop of Marines is being sent to the planet to confront the aliens, with plenty of firepower and testosterone to boot.  Nonetheless, the change is approaches is innovative and somewhat daring.  Sequels usually seek to replicate what the first movie did successfully, but it’s completely uninteresting the second time around.  James Cameron here took the franchise in a different direction.  Instead of all the ominous silence and darkness of the last film, we have explosions and gun battles with the aliens.  The movie has delicious 80’s action film feel to it, if that style can indeed be appealing.

In the story, Ripley is sent with a group of marines back to the planet where she first encountered the aliens.  A colonial outpost there has stopped transmitting for unknown reasons, and they are to find out what the problem is, and deal with the aliens if there are any.  They arrive to find the colony, which was contained in a single large building, empty, but showing signs of battle.  Before long, they find what they were looking for, and have to fight to get out alive.

Story analysis

Act I
Sequence: Ripley agrees to go on mission

  • Ripley journeys through space on her return home, held in sleep aboard the tiny shuttle from the previous movie.  Her shuttle is located by a scavenger crew, who expect to be able to salvage the ship and make money, but are dismayed to find a living person onboard.
  • Ripley finally wakes up in a clean, white medical facility in the orbit of Earth.  A representative of the company, Burke, comes and introduces himself to her, and tells her about what she is expected to do next by the company.  He acts surprised to learn that she does not know where she is or what year it is, but he tells her that she was adrift in space for 57 years, and it is only through “blind luck” that she was discovered by a deep space salvage crew.
  • As he’s talking to her, she suddenly convulses and starts spasming.  Knowing that a chestburster alien is about to erupt from her chest, she tries to tell the staff restraining her to kill her, but they do not listen.  The alien seems just about to push through when she jolts awake from her nightmare.
  • Ripley is called to give numerous testimonies as to what happened on the Nostromo.  The executives of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation doubt her account, and grill her about why she took the action of destroying the $42 million space tug, not to mention its huge payload.  They state that no evidence was found on the shuttle to corroborate her story about the alien, and that no alien life has been detected on the planet they landed on, now called LV-426.  The meeting is finally adjourned in frustration, when the leader blithely reveals, to Ripley’s shock, that the planet is now home to a colony of 60-70 families, and the company is attempting to give the planet a breathable atmosphere.
  • Later, Burke and Lieutenant Gorman of the Space Marines (or something like that) come and visit Ripley in her room with a mission request.  The company has lost contact with the colony on 426, and would like her to accompany a mission to the colony as an “advisor.”  Burke assures her that she would not be involved in any combat situations, should they arise.  When Ripley refuses, he belittles her new status as a dockloader, but she sends him away nonetheless.  That night, though, she wakes up from another nightmare.  In a cold sweat, she contacts Burke on a videophone, and gets his reassurance that the mission is solely to kill the aliens, not to study them or bring them back for weapons development.  When Burke gives his word that it is, she accepts the commission.
Sequence: Meeting the other marines
  • Onboard the ship journeying to LV-426, the contingent of marines wakes up from their space sleep when they near the destination.  Ripley discovers she is with a rowdy and unlikable crew.  Machismo and prowess characterize their attitudes and interactions with each other, and a disdain for civvies like Ripley, and the supposed danger of the mission.
  • On top of all, Ripley then discovers that one crew member, Bishop, is an android.  She is infuriated that an android was placed on the mission without her knowledge; Burke apologetically explains that he forgot to tell her, and it’s standard procedure to include a robot on each mission.  Ripley is infuriated after the experience with Ash on the last mission; Bishop for his part is humble, and asks to be referred to as an “artificial person,” sensitive to the discrimination towards him.
  • Ripley attempts to brief the marines for their mission.  When she discloses what happened with Kane, she and her crew are mocked by the marines.  One defiant woman, Vasquez, cuts her short and asks to just be told “where to shoot.”  After Ripley’s address falls flat, they break to prepare for landing.
  • Ripley asks Gorman and Sgt. Apone if she can be of any help in preparations for landing.  She tells them she is licensed to operate a loader, and steps into an oversized bipedal machine.  She shows great dexterity at its controls, earning approving chuckles from Apone and Hicks.
Sequence: Meeting Newt
  • The crew ventures out in a landing craft to enter the colonial installation, which is one huge compound.  On the ride down, Ripley asks Gorman, who is sweating, how many drops he has been in.  He replies “Thirty-eight… simulated.”  Vasquez asks how many combat drops — “Two… including this one.”
  • On the surface of the planet, the marines disembark and proceed to the installation.  Inside, they find no people, but signs of violent activity.  Mauled walls and ceilings, torn pipes and wires, and holes in the floors, burned out by acid. Gorman declares the area “secured” and the commanding team joins them inside the installation, and finds in the medical facility some facehuggers still alive, held underwater in some glass tubes.  Burke gets close to examine one, over Ripley’s warning to stay back, and it jerks to life when he pulls up close, trying to break through its case.
  • A motion sensor detects motion of a creature nearby.  The marines march down the hall, guns at the ready.  A young girl suddenly jumps across the hall and ducks into a hiding spot, lucky to not get her head blown off by the reflexive fire from the soldiers.  They pursue her, until Ripley finally crawls through an air duct to find her in her secret room.  The girl is ragged and dirty, and clings on to the head of a doll.  Ripley tries to talk to the girl, but the girl just glares at her distrustfully.  The girl tries to escape into another air duct, but Ripley finally grabs her and holds her until she calms.
Sequence: Aliens kill several marines
  • Back at the operations center they have established, Ripley sends Gorman away after trying to indelicately interrogate the girl, and gives her hot chocolate.  The girl opens up, and reveals her name is Newt, and that her parents are dead.
  • Meanwhile, the Marines begin to use equipment to search for the colonists using PDTs, locators which were surgically implanted in every colonist.  The equipment eventually finds a great number of signals coming from a distant part of the station, and the squad of marines heads to that part of the installation to look for them.
  • They enter the facility 3 levels down from the nuclear power station.  Ripley points out that their bullets could potentially damage the cooling system, so Gorman tells Apone to collect the magazines and grenades, only leaving flamethrowers as weapons.  However, the cocky Vasquez and Drake secretly keep their magazines, and rearm their guns.  The walls of the station here are covered with some kind of organic matter, like an infested hive.  They soon find people cocooned, still alive.  They come up to a person in the walls, who tells them to kill her.  As the marines assure her that she will “be alright,” she starts convulsing, and an alien explodes out of her chest.  One of the marines immediately burns it to a crisp.  The attack awakens scores of dormant adult aliens, who begin coming after and killing the marines.  The bag of magazines and grenades is dropped into a fire, resulting in a huge explosion.  Apone is then killed as the scene descends into chaos.  Ripley tells Lieutenant Gorman to order the marines out, but he is paralyzed by fear.  She finally goes to the wheel of the mobile command vehicle they are in, and drives towards the marines to get them out.  Gorman, as soon as he realizes she is taking them closer to the scene of the fight, tries to stop her, but Burke holds him back.  Ripley breaks down the door of the room and the marines make their way to her.  They load into the vehicle, but Drake is killed by the acid blood of one alien, and Hudson is injured by another.  Ripley drives the vehicle back out, and then out of the installation and on the unsettled planet’s surface.
Sequence: Getting stranded on the planet’s surface
  • With some distance between them and the aliens, the survivors decide what course of action to take.  Gorman is unconscious, so Cpl. Hicks has seniority of the marines.  Ripley argues that they should just leave the planet and nuke the whole facility, killing whatever is inside of it, which Burke strongly opposes.  He attempts to give the order to go back, as the representative of the company, but Hicks overrules him in favor of Ripley’s plan.  They call the landing shuttle to come and pick them up and take them back to the carrier ship.
  • The shuttle makes its way towards squad of marines, but after it is in the air, an alien, which had snuck onboard, kills both of the pilots.  The shuttle crashes, ruining the survivors’ hope for a quick escape.  Newt tells them they should go back inside now, as it’s getting dark, and night is when the aliens come most.
Act II
Sequence: Ripley learns Burke’s true intentions
  • Back inside the facility, they make a new plan.  They decide to seal up all possible doors and entrances to their current location and await help, which is at least 17 days away.  While welding the doors, Hicks gives Ripley a signal transmitter so that she can be easily located.
  • Ripley carries Newt into the back of the medical ward to put her to sleep for the night. Newt doesn’t want to sleep because she is afraid of her dreams, so Ripley gives her the wrist transmitter to comfort her.
  • Ripley finds out from Bishop that Burke has plans not to kill the two facehugger aliens in captivity, but to bring them back to Earth for study.  She confronts Burke about this and he admits to it, but tells her they can both be made rich and famous if they are able to bring the aliens back for weapons development.  Ripley tells him she would stand in the way of any attempt by him to bring the aliens back with them, and leaves.
Sequence: Burke tries to kill Ripley with aliens
  • Bishop then points out to Ripley and Hicks that the cooling system of the nuclear plant is in fact damaged, and the reactor will melt down in four hours, destroying the whole facility and them if they are in it.  They decide to try to signal a shuttle to fly remotely from their carrier ship to pick them up.  To do so, they need to reach a computer console by crawling through an underground pipe for 200 meters, which duty Bishop volunteers for.
  • Ripley then goes to check on Newt.  Newt is not in her bed, but sleeping under it.  Ripley joins her and falls asleep.  She awakes some time later with a start.  She looks around and sees across the room one of the holding containers of the facehuggers, empty on the floor.  She peeks up from underneath the bed, and one of the creatures falls right in front of her.  They turn the bed over on it and then run to the door, but find it locked shut, and the glass windows are unbreakable.  Ripley tries to get someone’s attention by waving her arms in front of the security camera, but Burke turns off the monitor.  Finally she sets off a fire sprinkler with her lighter, causing an alarm.  The sudden torrent of water also brings the two facehuggers out more aggressively.  One begins wrapping its tail around Ripley’s throat, but Hicks, Hudson, and Vasquez arrive just in time to save them.  Ripley then tells them Burke plotted this.
Sequence: Aliens attack them in hideout
  • Burke now faces the ire of the remaining crew members, defenseless about his plan.  While the marines debate what they should do with him, the power is suddenly cut off.  Realizing the aliens have done it, and must be coming for them, they seal off the door of their room.
  • The motion detectors pick up lots of activity in the facility, as the crew back into the room.  Finally, as the signals seem impossibly close, they realize the aliens are in the ceiling.  The aliens drop down and another firefight begins.  Burke escapes into another hallway, and locks the door behind them.  Hudson dies in the firefight, and they break through the door, only to find Burke has locked the next door too.  While they hold off the aliens, Burke searches for his next escape, only to open a locker, where an alien takes him.  Newt tells them to follow her through the ventilation ducts, and starts leading them towards the landing field to meet up with the ship.  Vasquez and Gorman bring up the rear as they flee through the shafts.  Vasquez gets injured by acid blood, and Gorman goes back to help her.  Fighting off the aliens, she soon runs out of ammo and flamethrower fuel.  In a last act of bravery, they kill themselves with a grenade to stop the aliens.  At the ladder to the landing field, Newt falls down a turbine shaft to a pool of water below.  Ripley and Hicks cut through the floor to get to her, but just before they get through, an alien comes up out of the water and takes her.  Hicks and Ripley flee, he gets injured by acid in the elevator, and they make it out to the platform to meet Bishop with the ship.  Once on board, however, Ripley directs Bishop to take her back to the site of the nest, right under the nuclear reactor, to go get Newt.
Sequence: Ripley rescues Newt
  • With 14 minutes left before the reactor explodes, Ripley comes out of the elevator at sublevel 3, site of the next.  She leaves a path of signal flares to find her way back to the elevator.  Using a signal locator, she goes to the location of Newt’s signal bracelet, but finds only the bracelet itself.  Suddenly, she hears Newt scream, and runs deeper into the lair to find her.
  • Ripley locates Newt, trapped in webbing in the walls.  She kills a facehugger just as it’s about to attack Newt, then several alien guardians that come at her.  Ripley extracts Newt from the walls, then carries her away.
  • Ripley runs into a large open room, then suddenly stops in the middle as she realizes she has just run in to a room full of fresh eggs.  Holding stone still, she looks up and sees a giant queen alien, laying the eggs on the opposite side of the room.  The queen alien sees Ripley, and more guardian aliens start to enter at the doors, but the queen sends them back off.  She’s seemingly letting Ripley go, if she does no harm.  Ripley gets to the exit, then, unable to stop herself, turns and torches the eggs.  The queen begins to screech, and aliens come toward Ripley, but she manages to kill them all with her machine gun and grenades.  She then launches grenades into the large ovipositor on the rear, destroying the remaining eggs.  The queen alien detaches from her ovipositor, and Ripley runs for the elevator.  She calls both elevators; she goes into the first one that gets there, and the door closes on the queen just as she reaches the elevator.
  • Ripley steps back out at the top, only to find the shuttle no longer there.  The facility is now beginning to crumble and burn around her.  She then hears a noise, and looks down the elevator shaft to the see the other elevator rising.  She positions herself on the far side of the platform, unarmed, awaiting the queen’s emergence onto the platform.  Just as she arrives, the ship hovers up behind her.  Ripley turns and boards it on the ramp; the platform gives way just as the ramp shuts, and it knocks the ship.  However, with all remaining people safely on board, Bishop guns it away from the facility.  A powerful explosion rocks them as they speed away from the colony, the alien nest now indisputably gone.
Sequence: Ripley battles queen
  • Back on board the ship, Bishop explains to Ripley that he had to leave the platform, it was too unstable.  Ripley reassures him that he did well on the mission, which sincerely touches Bishop.  Suddenly, though, he is grabbed from behind by the queen alien and literally twisted into two pieces.  The queen climbs down from the back of the shuttle, where she had managed to cling to as the shuttle left the platform, and pursues Ripley once again.  Ripley tries to distract the queen long enough to give Newt a chance to run away, then runs into an adjoining garage and shuts the thick steel door.  The queen starts coming for Newt, who crawls into the space under the floor, but the queen keeps ripping up panels to get to her.  The door suddenly reopens and Ripley stands ready for battle in one of the loader machines.  She takes on the alien in hand-to-hand combat, grabbing its appendages and holding them still with the arms of the machine.  She realizes they are standing next to a hatch that opens into space, and opens the inner hatch.  She tries to drop the alien in, but falls in as well, and they sit in a crumpled mess on the floor of the hatch, which is an opening to the outside, space.  Ripley takes herself out of the loader machine and starts climbing up the ladder, when the alien wraps its tail around her foot, pulling her down.  She clings to the ladder, and finally activates the door with a control by the latter.  The door opens and air starts rushing out of the craft with incredible force.  The loader falls out into space, but the queen hangs on by Ripley’s leg.  Barely able to keep herself on the ladder, Ripley finally kicks her leg and breaks the alien’s grip, and the alien falls away into space, helpless.  Ripley crawls back up the ladder, brings herself inside the hatch, and finally closes the door, safe at last.
Resolution: back to sleep
  • Some time later, Ripley and Newt prepare themselves for sleep on the journey home, Bishop and Hicks already put to rest for their injuries.  Ripley shares some sweet talk with Newt, tells her that there are no more monsters, and that they can both sleep safely all the way home.
Whew, that was a long one.
I had difficulty in trying to diagram the story on this one.  As with Alien, the inciting incident was a bit unclear.  I am now also trying to identify the crisis and climax in each story, but I found these hard to discover here.  As McKee describes it, a climax is when a character fully faces the ultimate decision:
The protagonist’s quest has carried him through the Progressive Complications until he’s exhausted all actions to achieve his desire, save one.  He now finds himself at the end of the line.  His next action is his last.  No tomorrow.  No second chance.  This moment of dangerous opportunity is the point of greatest  tension in the story as both protagonist and audience sense that the question “How will this turn out?” will be answered in the next action.
Certainly there is a moment of greatest tension.  The queen alien has followed Ripley all the way back to the space ship.  It surprises her and jumps out.  So far, she has managed to avoid direct, one-on-one confrontation with the queen of the alien forces, but now it’s staring her in the face.  No escaping this one.
From Story, I gathered that the Crisis is a moment where the protagonist must decide whether or not to confront the forces of antagonism.  Perhaps a question of how, or which of two paths to take.  But this is not a decision for Ripley.  She is courageous; though she wishes not to confront the aliens, she has proven that she will, especially when Newt’s safety is involved.  So there is no decision here.  Instead, Ripley merely concocts her plan on how to battle the queen.
So is this a crisis?  Although this will require more research and reading on my part, I think the answer is that this is an action movie crisis.  In other words, this is how the crisis looks in action films; it is a convention of the genre.  Consider James Bond films.  James Bond battles through levels of minions, he chases a villain around the world with a single-minded determination.  He would not wimp out when he finally meets the enemy face-to-face, no matter what advantages he lacks.  The crisis is the clearing of the battlefield, where the fight comes down to just the two of them; their opposing wills and strengths.  So it is in Aliens.  This is also only possible, obviously, if the “force of antagonism” is a tangible person or thing.  You can’t have a sword or gun fight with the darkness inside your soul.  So this seems to be one more requirement of the action genre — the antagonist is a single (perhaps multiple, in some cases) person or thing that is trying to kill the protagonist.
Note, too, that just as Alien is of a different genre, it does have more a decision-based crisis.  In that film, once everyone else has died, Ripley now tries as fast as she can to escape the alien on board.  She begins the self-destruct process, then makes it quickly to the escape shuttle.  However, she finds the alien in the last corridor blocking her way.  She does not want to confront it; she’d rather stop the self-destruct and remain on the larger ship with it.  She runs back to the bridge and tries to abort, but for some reason it doesn’t work.  This forces the confrontation with the alien.  Coincidentally, she once more thinks she’s gotten out of fighting it directly, as it is nowhere to be found in the shuttle.  But it reemerges once she is alone on the shuttle with it.  In this way, a second, even higher crisis is reached.  She is afraid once more, but has no choice but to attempt to outsmart the alien.  The nature of these actions, of her decisions to try to not confront the alien, gives Alien a much more psychological, fear-based meaning.  Aliens is much more a contest of strength.
So then, my answers for inciting incident, crisis, and climax: the inciting incident is in two parts, when Ripley first learns that the colony on LV 426 is in danger, then when she decides to join the mission back to the colony.  (This is her only struggle of will in this movie.)  The crisis comes when the queen alien shockingly jumps off the back of the ship.  The climax is, of course, when the alien is ejected out into space for good.
I would state the controlling idea as “When we sacrifice ourselves for others, we achieve victory.”  This idea is reflected throughout the story: Gorman, who is afraid of the aliens, tries to stay out of the fight at the start.  He sends the squad of marines in to “secure the area,” remaining back to command the operation.  He again stays out when they go down into the nest, and becomes paralyzed with fear when the mission goes awry.  His selfish decisions contribute to the failure of the mission.  The only thing that even rouses him out of his fearful spell is when Ripley starts driving towards the aliens, and he gets up and tries to stop her.  Burke is on the mission only for personal gain.  He hopes to bring back the alien creatures for weapons development, reaping a huge profit when he does so.  His lies and secret decisions along the way help to ruin the mission.  Then, when the aliens are coming in close, he twice flees through a door and locks it behind him, trapping the others in the room with the aliens.  However, his self-centered attempts to ensure his own survival lead him right to a waiting alien.
By contrast, acts of self-sacrifice advance the mission.  The film’s most heroic transformation is in the character of Gorman.  After the first narrow escape, he learns his place, and relinquishes de facto leadership to Ripley.  When they are fleeing the aliens through the airducts and Vasquez is injured, rather then leaving her behind, he sends the others forward and goes back for her.  He carries her some of the way down the duct, but soon they are completely out of ammunition.  In a final act of bravery, he produces a grenade, and they push the button down together, killing themselves and stopping the aliens long enough to let Ripley, Hicks, and Newt get out.  Ripley, of course, exemplifies the controlling idea.  All of her decisions are to throw herself, and often others, directly into danger, in order to save others.  Her final move to defeat the queen alien is the riskiest, most knife-edge move of the film.  She first throws herself down into the hatch with the alien, putting herself closer to it than ever before.  When she is stuck on the ladder with the alien holding on to her leg, she opens the hatch, likely with only a dim hope of holding onto the ladder herself.
As a last comment, though I could say more, I note that this film also successfully explores all variations on the value of survival.  The positive of the value is surviving, life.  The contradictory is of course death.  The contrary spin of the value is injury, which happens to most of the characters.  But for the negation of the negation, we reach the darkest element, a spin of the value worse than death: cocoonment by the aliens.  When the aliens take you, they don’t kill you, they impregnate you with a parasite and use you to try to capture other hosts.  The living person they find in the wall of the alien nest begs for death, not only to save them, but to be put out of her misery and avoid the ultimate violent death of a chestburster coming out of them.

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

The Adjustment Bureau

On vacation (sort of) with the family in Savannah, Georgia.  Today after stuffing ourselves silly at Paula Deen’s restaurant, we came back to the hotel and rested.  There was nothing worth watching on the 20-odd channels of hotel TV, so my family decided for the first time ever to order an on-demand movie, The Adjustment Bureau, and watched it together as one.  (I expected it to cost just a few bucks, but it cost $15 plus tax, which I really didn’t think was worth it, but we got a sentimental experience out of it anyway.)  Then tonight, as per usual for staying in a hotel with the fam, I couldn’t sleep at all, so now I’m down in the hotel’s “business center” — an old computer on a table by the front door in the lobby — writing this up, rather than spending more brooding hours with nothing to do in a pitch dark room.  I’m leaving for the airport at 4 o’clock, about an hour and fifteen minutes from now, and would rather finish this now, so the “scene analysis” may be skimpy here.  No great loss for this movie.

The plot concerns a rising New York state politician, David Norris, who meets his One True Love on the night of a lost election.  He is prevented from calling her again later, but doesn’t forget about her.  Three years later, he runs into her again, and shadowy men in hats start overtly interfering in his life to keep him away from her.  He resists again, fighting for his love, at which point they tell him he better stop.  He doesn’t, then he does, then when she’s about to get married he runs to go claim her back once and for all.  She’s a bit pissed about his spotty behavior in the past, but trusts him, and then they seemingly have to flee from destiny itself.

Scene Analysis

  • David Norris is a candidate for the US Senate in New York State, 2006.  His political rise was legendary: after losing both of his parents at a young age, he eventually becomes the youngest congressman ever elected.  His youth and personality endear him to the young people of his district (Brooklyn, incidentally), for example, getting into a bar brawl on the night of his first electoral victory.  However, a late-breaking scandal in this campaign has ruined his chances in this, his first Senate campaign.  As he receives the dismal numbers in his campaign HQ, a group of men in polished suits and hats mysteriously talk about how they are tired, and ready for the race to be over.
  • David excuses himself to a bathroom in the hotel for a private moment, and to put his thoughts together for a concession speech.  After running through the speech several times, a woman finally comes out of one of the stalls and apologizes for being there the whole time.  She’s hiding out from security, having crashed a wedding upstairs, to which he replies that he too has crashed a few weddings in his time.  They spark up a conversation, and she recognizes him as the Senate candidate, and gathers he has lost.  He tries to say his loss doesn’t bother him, but she sees through his facade and he talks for once about the reality and the inauthenticity of his job.  He just begins to kiss her when his campaign manager Charlie comes in the bathroom and interrupts them.  She flees, and he’s pulled reluncantly to give his address.
  • David begins his boilerplate concession speech, but abandons the script and instead gives a sincere address about how prepared his tie was, the lines of his speech, how his shoes are chosen to have just the perfect amount of scuff on them to appeal to voters.
  • The speech ironically sells him to voters beautifully, and he becomes the presumed front-runner for the next Senate election.  About a month after the election, David is heading to his new position at an investment bank one morning.  He gets on a bus and happens to run into Elyse, and they rekindle their conversation like longtime friends.  A man in a hat, meanwhile, has missed his mark and chases after the bus, trying to ruin David’s conversation with her.  David spills his coffee on Elyse, but they still end amicably, and he gets her number.
  • David gets to his office and immediately calls Charlie to rave about having run into the girl again.  He heads to a meeting, for which he is earlier than expected, and opens the door to find men in hats seemingly preparing the room, shining a light on the bald head of a frozen Charlie.  They betray surprise, and start to come for him, causing him to flee through the office.  They finally corner him and put him under.
  • He wakes up in some unknown concrete warehouse room.  There they talk to him and tell him he is not allowed to try to find Elyse any more.  He has already seen something he’s never supposed to have seen, and he is forbidden to tell anyone else what has happened, or they will literally reset his brain, making him dead to the world.  They seem to have superhuman powers, such as mindreading, and say that he is messing with the plan.  The leader takes the paper with Elyse’s number and burns it, then they let him go.
  • David goes to talk to Charlie, but he remembers nothing about the men in his office, nor of hearing about the girl.  He notices David acting strange, and David excuses himself to take the rest of the day off.
  • He sits in a bar for lunch and is trying to remember her number when the first man in the hat sits down next to him and starts talking about the situation.  David demands answers from Harry, but he simply tells him to meet on a ferry later.
  • On the ferry, David tries to ask why he cannot see Elyse any more, but Harry is tight-lipped, and just tells him it’s better for the both of them if he does not try to find her.
  • Three years pass, when David finally sees her again on the sidewalk.  He catches up with her, and tries to apologize, but she was baffled and hurt at how he left her hanging last time.  However, they reestablish a positive connection.
  • Two of the mystery men, the leader (Richardson) and one who was possibly Asian or Hispanic, observe this meeting and express chagrin.  They consider options for how to sever the link between David and Elyse once more.  When David kisses her good-bye on the cheek, they realize the connection has been made very strongly, and the ripples may be too great for Richardson to interfere.
  • David leaves to go give a speech announcing his campaign for Senate, and plans to come to Elyse’s dance rehearsal immediately afterwards at the nearby Pier 17.  The hatmen interfere and have her rehearsal moved to an obscure studio called Cedar Lake, and she must make the career choice between seeing David or going to her rehearsal.  She goes to the rehearsal.
  • David finishes his speech and quickly boats across the river to the Pier 17 studio, but sees a sign posted on the door saying the rehearsal was moved to Cedar Lake.  He tries to use the phone in a parking booth to find where Cedar Lake is, but the hatmen make the line fail.  He finds out from a person where Cedar Lake is, but then cannot hail a cab.  Finally he reaches Cedar Lake, and sees her dancing, which cements his desire for her, against the wishes of the hatmen.
  • Richardson goes to advise his superior of the situation with David Norris.  The man, Thompson, pulls out a book and explains that in an earlier version of the plan, David and Elyse were supposed to in fact be together.  When the plan was changed, not everything could be fully undone, so certain elements of the world seem to impel them together.
  • David, meanwhile, goes to a club with Elyse.  Lots of the young drunk people there recognize him and say they voted for him.  He and Elyse talk afterwards at her place, about his parents, his childhood dreams.  He comments he just told a lot of personal stuff to someone he admittedly does not even know all that well — is she even single?  Yes comes the answer, and down go the panties.  They make love, then sleep in each other’s arms, as Richardson observes tut-tuttingly.
  • The next morning, they awake and Elyse finds that she has four missed calls from her ex-fiance Adrian.  David asks why she didn’t marry him.  Elyse explains that she knew what she had with David was true love, and she was waiting for him to reappear.
  • David doesn’t want her to leave his side, so he takes her with him to an interview on the Daily Show.  However, backstage he’s taken aside by Richardson, who finally attempts to stop David’s resistance by telling him what the plan is.  Richardson takes David to the theater Elyse is now performing in, and tells him that she is also destined to become an internationally renowned dancer and master choreographer.  She is on the verge of a major career breakthrough, but if she stays with David, her career will start and she will “teach ballet to six-year-olds.”  Peeking in the door, David watches as Richardson messes up her jump, and she falls and is hurt in the middle of her performance.
  • David goes to see Elyse at the hospital, where she has a sprained foot.  She is glad to have his support, but conflicted over what he has been told, David finally tells her he’s going to make a phone call, and doesn’t come back.
  • The hatmen converge once more after this to go over the plan.  Richardson reassures a doubtful Harry that Thompson has corrected their paths, and nothing will go awry now.  Harry begins to seriously question the wisdom of their mission.
  • Eleven months later, David sees in the newspaper that Elyse, now being covered in the dance section of the New York Times, is engaged to Adrian.  David mourns the development, but relegates himself to his fate.
  • He leaves work for the day, and goes to the bar.  To his surprise, Harry has left a note for him to come meet him that night.  David meets Harry, who then explains that Thompson has in fact been lying–David can be with Elyse, but doing so would stifle his drive to become President, which does interfere with the grander plan overall.  Harry, in his disillusionment with the organization, decides to help David to get past the other men in hats and reach Elyse.
  • By wearing a hat, David can use doors as portals to other doorways far off.  New York turns out to be a maze of these “substrates,” but David memorizes a path to take him past the hat men and to Elyse’s wedding at the courthouse.
  • In the morning, David breaks out of his hiding place near the water, and starts pursuing Elyse with something like 10 minutes left before her wedding.  The hatmen are monitoring the situation, and begin chasing when he leaves the building to come after her; they are surprised however when they realize he has started using the substrates.
  • After a chase, David comes to the courthouse, where he searches for Elyse.  He finds her in a bathroom, where she is crying a little before her wedding–inside, she doesn’t really want to go through with it.  He confronts her, and tells her rather clumsily that he loves her and he’s not going to let her marry that guy.  He tells her he can explain, but for now they need to run.  There is a lot she needs to know, but for now he gains her trust by demonstrating how he can step through doors to other places with the substrate.
  • They run through a few places, with the hatmen trailing behind.  Finally they reach the Statue of Liberty, and stop for a bit.  He knows that they can’t outrun the hatmen forever; he must somehow stop their action.  David realizes they must take the matter to the Chairman, commander of the hatmen.  He tells her where they are going, and they could be in danger of losing their minds, but she has to trust him, and does she want to take that chance with him?  She finally does, and together they go through a door opened counterclockwise, taking them into the HQ of the hatmen.
  • Inside, they find a maze of a building that looks something like the New York library.  They start running through, going past desks, security people and such.  The agency soon realizes they have intruders, and what look like Nazi footsoldiers start chasing them, marching in a line.
  • David and Elyse are chased until they reach the top of the building, a skyscraper roof.  Trying to escape being cornered, David and Elyse go through a door only to wind up back on the roof.  They turn and await the vicious hat people army, but it doesn’t come.
  • Instead, Richardson and Harry appear on the roof with them.  Richardson is telling them why they are being pursued: these men are the adjustment bureau, who have had a hand in controlling most of human history.  He explains that for thousands of years, humans had no free will, but were controlled secretly by the adjustment men.  Finally some of them said that humans should be allowed to make their own choices–free will.  What followed was the dark ages for a thousand years or so.  Free will was suspended again for the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and so forth, until 1910, when humans were given another shot at controlling themselves.  After two world wars and the Great Depression, free will was put on hold again.  This is the role the Adjustment Bureau men play, altering humans’ paths to conform with the plan from above.  Harry suddenly interrupts with an envelope, saying he has a message from the chairman.  Richardson looks inside, and says “I see.”
  • Harry then speaks to them, and shows them the message: a paper with the complex path of David and Elyse, travelling in parallel through much of the mire, then a dotted line dived the page, and their paths cross over into blank space on the other side.  They have been awarded with free will.
  • David and Elyse live happily ever after, telling the audience the message about people making better choices for themselves; deserving free will once they have made difficult choices.

Overall, the movie was not that great; it certainly looked better in commercials than it was.  It took what had the potential to be a great political sci-fi thriller, and turned out a lukewarm love story metaphorically about angels and human choice.  What messed it up, of course, was the story.

The story lacked in a few certain ways that were definitely noticeable.  Too many questions were raised and left unanswered.  Who exactly were these men at the Adjustment Bureau?  Were they human?  Angels?  Devils?  Aliens?  Any could be possible, but they seemed to be very politically interested in earth.  The chairman was never actually encountered.  How did they do what they did?  A counterexample which comes to mind is Inception, which opens with a fantastic scene that demonstrates the mechanics of their dream machinery as well as initiating the story.  More detail in how the substrate worked, and a demonstration of their work altering humans’ paths would have done a great deal toward filling out the story world.

Moreover, though, one important element McKee talked about was that for a story to feel satisfying, it must feel like every plateau has been reached; the protagonist has been tested to his fullest, and the forces of antagonism brought to bear against him must be fully exerted.  Only one or the other may then triumph.  If this does not happen, the audience leaves wondering, “Well why didn’t they just do that?”  In this case, why did the Adjustment Bureau suddenly stop pursuing him on the top of the tower?  David and Elyse crossed the threshold humans were never supposed to cross; they entered the Adjustment Bureau itself.  We see menacing armies of soldiers and men in hats pursuing them, trying to block their path.  We feel concern, mindful of Thompson’s promise at the start to “wipe” David and Elyse’s brain if they do what they did.  David and Elyse are finally trapped on the roof of the building, and — what?  Nothing.  No one comes for them.  Expectations were set but not fulfilled.  The guys in hats seem to have given up.  The climax attempted to address this, with the Chairman having changed his mind, but it doesn’t really cover it up.  The audience should not be able to imagine anything else that either the protagonist or the antagonist could do to achieve their goals.  Ultimately the true character of the protagonist and the antagonist determine the direction of the climax.  Who is really stronger?  Smarter?  More willful?  More persistent?  More willing to commit evil, perhaps?  More hungry?  If one or the other is brought to a point where they just say, “Eh, I never really wanted that that much anyway,” the audience recognizes the dupe, and dislikes the story.

Last of all, I do see McKee’s point in this about the abuse of voiceover narration.  The final scene of voiceover attempts to cover up an otherwise weak ending.  It’s like canned resolution.  David simply tells us (having never broken the fourth wall earlier) what the lesson of the movie is.  Better to demonstrate through action.

And no, I did not finish the post in one sitting.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.