Jun 14, 2002

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

Is there a double standard when it comes to evaluating "chick flicks" compared to male-oriented action and war films? According to one critic, we incorrectly assign more value to the drama of male bonding than we do to the female bonding portrayed in such films as Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood.

Such a double standard may indeed exist, but you can't prove it with this film. The reasons for its problems have everything to do with the structure upon which it depends.

Most notable is the use of the storyteller. A group of women kidnap the heroine, who is feuding with her mother, and proceed to tell her the story of the mother's life.

The first rule of the storyteller structure is that the present tense story must be more interesting than the past story. Why? Because the act of telling the story should lead the hero to learn something and solve something now. Otherwise, there's no point in jerking the audience forward and backward.

This first rule is broken right from the start when the heroine is kidnapped by the mother's friends and flown south. This action is so ridiculous that the writer/director doesn't even show it, in hopes, I assume, that the audience will somehow overlook the contrivance of the setup.

Once trapped in her new location, the heroine doesn't call the police or get the hell away from these idiots. She calmly listens as they tell her information about her mother that the heroine would already know because she lived in the same house.

The present problem is dealt with by the equivalent of a group therapy session and solved by nothing more than the mother and daughter saying they are sorry. The past story of the mother's life is filled, in contrast, by death, alcoholism, and a moment of despair and insanity when she beats her children.

The past story is supposed to show the audience and the heroine the reasons for the mother's failures. But other than the one scene where the mom hits her children, virtually every scene shows how wonderful she is.

The deeper issue here is not whether "chick flicks" are devalued, but rather how you dramatize family life. Action and war films have it easy; they show life and death situations. Nobody mentions that the vast majority of the audience will never encounter these situations.

They will encounter growing and living within a family. And how they deal with the conflicts of that experience will determine whether they have a good life or not.

The lesson here is clear: use the storyteller form correctly or you will heighten the sense that we are watching false or petty drama.

Jun 7, 2002

The Sum of All Fears

This film is textbook Tom Clancy. He is the master of the funnel effect. He starts by cross-cutting around a huge circle worldwide. He tells us the general endpoint fairly early and adds a ticking clock. The cross-cutting spirals tighter and tighter, in both space and time, with all the actors converging at a single point.

Clancy adds another element crucial to his huge commercial success. Most political thrillers, especially in film, show the hero hunted by vast, hidden forces and often end with the hero's death or defeat.

Clancy, on the other hand, finds a way to place his single hero at the center of these vast forces, almost like a man riding a hurricane. The hero figures out the one key to turning the vortex from disaster to victory.

Structurally, Clancy is combining thriller and epic, two forms that don't naturally go together. It's a combination that is very popular when it's done right.

Jun 1, 2002


One of the best shows on television this season has been 24. The high concept of the show is that the season of 24 shows tracks 24 hours in the life of CIA agent Jack Bauer.

What this means structurally is that 24 is almost totally a plot-based show. The creators aren't just using the ticking clock technique to speed the story as it nears the end. They have to fill real time, and real time is boring. That means they have to rely heavily on cross-cut storytelling in which we cut between a number of story lines happening simultaneously.

Cross-cut storytelling allows you a number of plot advantages. First, you increase suspense by showing two lines racing to the same point. For example, will the hero save the girl tied to the railroad tracks before the train runs her over?

Second, the cross-cut allows you to remove any action that is boring. Instead of watching someone drive somewhere or even have a conversation (heaven forbid), we can jump from crisis point to crisis point, so long as we have enough story lines going at once.

But notice that puts tremendous pressure on the writers. They have to not only create a number of story lines that are believably happening at one time, they have to weave them together so that each helps build the other and both the episode and the season have a dramatic line.

That's really hard. One of the pleasures for me watching the show was seeing how the writers accomplished these feats of plot with such success. Plotting is the most under-estimated of the major storytelling skills, so watching these writers perform their high wire act over 24 hours of tv time was pretty amazing.

But as they say in basketball, you live by the sword, you die by the sword. When your show is built almost entirely on plot, you lack the character definition to make some of your plot tricks believable. And when that happens, the plot mechanics immediately become obvious and audience scorn is severe.

To the writers' credit, this didn't happen often. However, I laughed out loud when they used the old amnesia trick for Jack's wife.

The most grievous example of the false plot trick occurred on the biggest plot twist of the season. In the second to last episode, the writers revealed the identity of the hero's opponent-ally. Because there had been virtually no character work during the series, and because there had been no clues woven in earlier, this reveal not only felt false, it seemed like a betrayal of the audience.

Revealing the hidden opponent is a common problem, not just with plot-based stories but, more specifically, with detective stories. Detective writers are so worried that the audience will guess the big reveal of the killer early, they often give no clues at all. But as the master, Agatha Christie, once said, that's cheating. The audience should be totally surprised, but also be able to think back through the story and realize the information was there all along.

Ironically, what saved the writers of 24 is the fact that their big reveal happened at the end of the second to last show. By that point, the only people who were watching were real fans who had already forgiven lesser plot grievances.

What will be interesting to see is how the writers of this show overcome another weakness inherent to plot-based shows, the second season blues. When you put all your eggs in the plot basket of the first season, the audience feels they have had the experience. For example, when Laura Palmer's killer was revealed at the end of Twin Peaks' first season, no one felt they needed to come back the next year.

Now that I've seen Jack Bauer's worst nightmare, I don't think I want to see a different one that's almost as bad.