FRIDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

DISPASSIONATE?


"Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure. The telegram from the home says: YOUR MOTHER PASSED AWAY. FUNERAL TOMORROW. DEEP SYMPATHY. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday."

stranger - Buy it!

For many of us, that opening paragraph from Camus' THE STRANGER influenced our writing and world-view. After years of melodrama, the existentialists like Camus and Sartre experimented with fiction by removing passion entirely - creating a contrast between the anarchy of the world around us and the cocoon of our thoughts. As the world becomes more crowded, the existentialists provided a way for us to be alone - individuals among the blur of humanity. I found Camus through James M. Cain - Camus was a fan of Cain, and any fan of Cain was a writer I wanted to read.

In THE STRANGER the protagonist is more concerned with the day the telegram was sent than his mother's death... or maybe that's his defense mechanism. If you look at the world intellectually instead of emotionally, nothing can hurt you. Later, when he's accused of murder, his lack of passion works against him.

A world insulated from pain because it removes passion is very attractive to writers. Most of us had crappy childhoods, broken hearts; we are the outsiders of society looking in. If we can just remain aloof - above the pain - we can survive. If we can give up caring, we can no longer be hurt. As attractive as existentialism may be to us as outsiders, it's not the best choice if you plan on writing for a mass media like film. Even those of us who love Camus go to the movies for SAFE emotional experiences. When the lights go down, we WANT to live the sort of passionate lives that we may be afraid of outside the mass-dream of movies. Existentialism and film usually don't mix.

man who wasn't there - Buy it!

We can make a list of great films directed by the Coen Brothers, but one film that probably won't be on it is THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE. Wait... never heard of it? Have to look it up online? Hey, it's the film they might right after O BROTHER WHERE ARE THOU? Should have been a big hit, right? Should be on my DVD shelf, right? Scarlett Johansson stars in it... what happened?

Well THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE is a somnambulistic paced story of a barber whose wife is having an affair with her boss. It's James M. Cain territory, right down to the name of the store where the wife works (Nerdlinger's - the name of the wife in DOUBLE INDEMNITY... and there's a character named Diedrickson, the name of the wife in the movie... this whole film is an homage!). As in DOUBLE INDEMNITY the protagonist commits a murder, falls in love with a girl young enough to be his daughter, and is eventually convicted of a crime he didn't commit... but would have to admit to a real murder in order to prove he was innocent. Both end with a gas chamber scene. Wow! This sounds like a great movie, except for that slow pacing part..

Billy Bob plays the barber with cool detachment - the murder seems like the actions of somebody else witnessed by the barber. Even the Barber's love for his friend's daughter is played without passion - piano lessons and classical music are okay, oral sex is just too personal. The voice over - another element from DOUBLE INDEMNITY - is a monotone comment on what happens. The Barber is looking at his own life from the outside...

Which is the biggest problem with many of the Coen Brother's movies: many of them are *removed* - they don't create an emotional doorway fort he audience, so we end us seeing the films as dispassionate observers (instead of being involved in the story). Their movies are often a little cold around the heart. Aloof. Distant. RAISING ARIZONA is a goofy exception, I think that's because the events are so big that we need the cool narration as an anchor to reality. The same is true with BLOOD SIMPLE, though we bounce from Ray's point of view to Abby's point of view... then lose both when they are murdered by Creighton (same character name as the murder victim in MAN WHO WASN'T THERE). If the story is wild - an emotional rollercoaster or events that are larger than life - you may want to take an outsider's dispassionate point of view to create balance. But when the story itself is low-key like in MAN WHO WASN'T THERE you bleed all of the passion from the story and end up with a film that's interesting and quirky but not involving. The audience watches the movie, but doesn't FEEL anything.

But wait, this is Film Noir, are we supposed to feel something?

double indemnity - Buy it!

Sure. Why not? The protagonist may seem unemotional in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, but the story is all about his passions and desires. The thing that fuels that story is his lust for Phyllis and his fears that his only future is to take over Keyes job at the insurance company when Keyes retires - they talk about this early in the film. Neff can't sell insurance forever, but he can work behind a desk for the company like Keyes does. That's one of the motivators for the scheme to kill Phyllis' husband... that and his passion for Phyllis. He did it for money and a woman, but he doesn't get the money and he doesn't get the woman. So Neff may seem low-key and unemotional - but the whole danged story and every scene is *packed* with emotions. Love, betrayal, regret... anger. And add to that the center of the film - Neff's relationship with Keyes, his mentor. That is the greatest heterosexual man-love story on film. The scenes with Keyes are Neff's chances to show his emotional side and the end with Keyes lighting his cigarette (the way Neff has been lighting Keyes' cigars throughout the film) is a big moment. This relationship is what gives the film heart, and allows us to care about Neff. We *understand* his character and we want him to succeed and get away with murder... even though that goal doesn't make him "likeable". The film isn't aloof and distant, it takes you inside the story and makes *the audience* feel.

THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE doesn't do that - it is always outside the story, looking down on what happens from the God's eye view. Heck, it's the Coen Brothers and they are geniuses and I have almost every one of their films on by shelf... but their movies are often detached... and that doesn't work well at the screenplay stage. It also didn't work well for this film, which flopped hard after the success of O BROTHER. As writers we need to involve the reader (and audience) on an emotional level - even if the story is about a character who is unlikeable.

heist - Buy it!

I had the same problem with HEIST from David Mamet, another of my favorite writers turned writer-director... and another guy who often makes movies that are a little cold around the heart. In SPANISH PRISONER and HOUSE OF GAMES Mamet created an audience identification character (emotional doorway) who is just as confused by the twists and turns of the plot as we are. We can put ourselves in her shoes, and *experience* the story. But in HEIST the protagonist is the twist-master... but we aren't let in on his twists. The doorway is closed. We are kept at arms-length from the character, at arms-length from the story, and end up just watching instead of being *involved* in what happens. The character we should be identifying with is giving us the cold shoulder!

I believe you can involve an audience either *emotionally* or (less likely) *intellectually*. One of my favorite of Mamet's films, HOUSE OF GAMES, is great at putting us inside the maze - showing us the puzzle and letting us try to\ figure it out. Movies like MEMENTO and EXOTICA also give us puzzles and involve us on an intellectual level. But HEIST tells us there's a puzzle but doesn't let us look at the pieces - they are all in Gene Hackman's mind, and he ain't sharing. When the twists occur they have no effect on us, because they happen to characters we don't identify with - so Hackman fools Sam Rockwell? Serves Rockwell right - he's a creep. Though you might think this makes Hackman look smart and we would like him - he fools all of these creeps, right? Instead we aren't allowed any information on Hackman's "fall back plans" so they seem to come out of the blue. WE don't get to feel as if WE'VE outsmarted Rockwell. The story is so detached the only emotions come from a shocking scene where Ricky Jay throws himself in front of a car so that Hackman can get away from the police - that scene works because the events are so big that the dispassionate approach creates contrast.

spartan - Buy it!

Mamet's follow up movie SPARTAN and the Coen's follow up THE LADYKILLERS both suffer from the same problem - they're movies you *watch* rather than movies that you *experience*. That means for two hours we may be entertained on a surface level, but unlike Quaker Oatmeal, they don't stick with you for the rest of the day. You aren't emotionally involved in Tom Hanks' struggles to outwit his landlady, nor do you care much if Val Kilmer discovers what happened to the President's daughter (if that's even who she is - this film is so tight-lipped you never know who anybody is). You can be so quirky or so cool that you hold the audience at arm's length, and prevent them from becoming emotionally involved in the story. By the way, I liked SPARTAN... but I'm in the minority on that. The film only made around $4 million and I doubt it cleaned up on home video. Most people didn't seem to like it or be interested in seeing it, because most people go to the movies to "laugh and cry and kiss $12 goodbye" - they want to feel something. There are a minority (includes me) who like puzzle movies, but that's because I can *participate* by trying to solve the puzzle. I'm *involved* in the story intellectually. I can be involved emotionally or intellectually, but if your story doesn't involve me at all - if it's distant and aloof - I won't have any way to carte about the outcome. It's just stuff happening that doesn't involve me.

I like the Coen Brothers and I like Mamet - when they get it right they hit it out of the park, but they often make movies that don't involve me.

My friend Joe once said something off the top of his head that are words to live by. Movies aren't thinkies, they're feelies. Yes, there are exceptions - but most films are emotionally involving for the audience. They want to laugh and cry. They want to be scared or fall in love. Even those of us who try to escape the pain of everyday life by being cool and dispassionate go to the movies for an emotional experience. For two hours, we WANT to be involved in the story, we WANT to feel pain and joy and love and heart break. Don't rob us of feelings by giving us just the cold unemotional facts. Take us *inside* the story. Put us in Walter Neff's shoes when he discovers that Phyllis is cheating on him - oh, crap... is she going to double cross me? Or has she *already* double crossed me and the cops are outside that door? Even a Noir protagonist worries that the plan will backfire and he'll end up in the gas chamber... our job is to make the audience worry as well. To create emotional scenes, even if the characters seem unemotional. To make the audience feel something.

Just say no to existentialism.

We're writing feelies.




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