Dec 30, 2002

Catch Me if You Can

The trickster is the most popular of all characters. In Catch Me If You Can, the con-man character generates a number of fun scenes. But the script has no idea how to tie them together.

This movie uses the James Bond approach. But instead of stringing stunts, it strings cons.

The writer makes some attempts to build a story. First, he tries to give some psychological foundation to what's happening by showing the failure of the hero's father. But it is unconvincing and way too long.

The writer also uses a framing device to kick the story up a notch. We begin with the capture of the hero, then flash back. But this frame gives us no new information about the story or the character, and only removes what little suspense we might have had about whether our con-man might escape.

One of the main ways you build a story is by having a main thematic line that is expressed through the need of the main character. This character is a teen-age boy who seems to con just because he is good at it and likes money and women. And no one seems to be getting hurt by it. So the cons don't lead to a more complex web of design or destruction. And with no need, it doesn't matter if the hero changes.

Without a theme or a point, all the story can do is come to an abrupt halt. The writer tries to set up a climactic ending by making us wonder if the hero will come back to work for the FBI. But it's never been set up, so it comes across as fake drama.

The main lesson from this movie is: the trickster character is more difficult to write than he appears. He seems to be so much fun that there seems no reason for him to change and do something else. That may give you some enjoyable scenes, but you can't build the story.

Dec 28, 2002

About Schmidt

About Schmidt does something that is rare in movies, especially from Hollywood. It depicts a lone man. That is both a blessing and a curse.

There is a very good reason films don't usually depict a lone man. Film is drama. It is public. We need someone for the main character to talk to. Otherwise the audience doesn't know what the film is about.

The main device this film uses to overcome the lone man problem is the voice-over where Schmidt reads the letters he's written to his African foster child, Ndugu. This technique not only gives the audience a great deal of information, it provides the best comedy of the film.

Missing from the script are opposition, hidden information and thus reveals. The lack of opposition means that we go for long periods without much happening, and worse, we get no depth or variation in the main conflict of the movie. The main opponent in the movie is Schmidt's daughter, who is about to marry a man Schmidt doesn't like. But the daughter is rarely present. And the conflict has no issue. It's an emotional thing; she's either going to marry the guy or not.

The lack of hidden information and reveals means there is little plot. True, Schmidt finds out about his wife's infidelity. But this reveal has little effect because the wife is already dead and we've seen very little between Schmidt and the friend who betrayed him.

In place of a developing opposition and reveals, the writers create a story line by sending the hero on a journey to his daughter's wedding. This gives the appearance of character development, but not the reality. Schmidt simply flips at the end of the film when he makes a speech praising his daughter's new husband and family. But he is clearly trying to be polite, not truthful.

This film seems to be getting praise because it is not a Hollywood mainstream picture, and Jack Nicholson is playing a schlub. That's not enough for me. I left the theater thinking the real drama of this man's life happened before this picture began.

Dec 27, 2002

Gangs of New York

Gangs of New York may be the most ambitious film of the last few years. Its production design and cinematography are among the best I have ever seen. Unfortunately its story structure cannot support the film's ambition.

The main structural element that sets this movie apart from others is context. Most Hollywood fare shows nothing of the world of the hero. It wants to get to the goal as quickly as possible so the audience can start on its wild ride.

As a result, the average Hollywood movie has speed, but no subtlety or complexity. There is no sense of how the world drives the hero or how others manifest the hero's central problem in different forms in the world.

Gangs of New York, on the other hand, has a massive amount of context. Indeed, it depicts and compresses all of American history of the 19th century in one film. And it does so by setting up a number of powerful dramatic oppositions: nativists vs. immigrants, the powerful vs. the weak, rich vs. poor, Catholic vs. Protestant, tribes and sectionalism vs. government and the rule of law.

But there is one big problem with showing so much context. You have to have a great desire line. Context is world; it goes sideways in a story. Desire is linear; it is the forward line on which everything hangs. The more you put on the line, the stronger the line has to be.

And what is the desire line these writers use to hang all of 19th century American history? A young man wants to take revenge on the man who killed his father in a street brawl when he was eight.

An eight-year-old seeing his father killed in a street brawl is not the stuff of Hamlet. This is no prince whose throne has been usurped by a murdering uncle who has also married the murdered king's wife. Which is why this boy¹s burning desire to take revenge rings so hollow. And why the forward movement of the story collapses almost immediately.

A weak desire line in a film with so much context is already big trouble. Add to that an almost complete lack of plot and we have narrative suicide.

The interesting thing is why there is so little plot. I found myself wondering about that while I was watching the film (also a very bad sign). It didn't make sense. Here was a fascinating period of American history, with developments coming fast and furious, and yet nothing seems to be happening in this film.

And then it hit me. Gangs of New York has almost no reveals. Plot doesn't come from a lot of things happening. Plot comes from hidden information about the opponents. When this information is revealed to the hero and the audience, the story turns. The audience is surprised and engaged.

So why does Gangs of New York have almost no reveals? It all goes back to the choice of a desire line. By giving the hero all the knowledge with his revenge desire line, it is the opponent, Butcher Bill, who must discover hidden information about the hero. The opponent has the reveal, and it is information the audience already knows. This is a fatal mistake.

The choice of a desire line also causes a break in the movie's spine. The first movie ends after Bill learns the hero's true identity and plot to kill him. In the annual tribute to the hero¹s slain father, Bill brands the hero in front of the entire community and sends him into exile, which is just down the street.

Besides being unbelievable - Bill the Butcher isn't a man who shies away from killing his enemies - this action ends the first story and forces the movie to have to restart. In a movie this long, that's a real audience killer.

The second movie represents a considerable drop off from the first, which already suffered from a weak desire line. Incredibly, for a movie this long, this second film felt both rushed and boring, as the branded outcast quickly rises to lead all Irish in New York. I guess there's nothing star power can't do.

Not surprisingly, the writers have trouble coming up with an organic ending. They have already given us a final battle when Bill exposes the hero and brands him in the tribute. Now they have to come up with another battle, this time in the midst of the terrible race riots of 1863.

But, curiously, the writers purposely undercut the showdown between hero and opponent by having the federal guns blow up the opposing gangs before they can fight.

Thematically, this is quite interesting; we are shifting from one social stage to another, from the era of New York ruled by gangs to an era of New York ruled by a nation of laws.

But the cost of this thematic choice is severe. It further de-dramatizes a final confrontation that is too-long in coming and is a pale repetition of the previous story beat.

There is much about Gangs of New York that is worthwhile, even awe-inspiring. But the movie is also proof, once again, that great filmmaking comes from a great script. And the best visuals in the world won't save you if your script isn't there.