Dec 29, 2003

Cold Mountain

Spoiler Alert: This breakdown contains information about the ending of the film.

The myth-drama is one of the most powerful story combinations that we have. Myth gives us the hero's journey and the epic scope. Drama gives us the family and the deep, complex issue. When the love story is added, we have the potential for a real knockout.

Unfortunately, the original writer of Cold Mountain structured his story in such a way as to remove much of the power of the myth-drama. By doing a straight cross-cut between the two leads for most of the story, the hero's journey does not build and the family cannot explore a central issue through conflict.

Cold Mountain is obviously The Odyssey set during the Civil War. In The Odyssey, Homer also cuts between the traveling Ulysses and the faithful Penelope back home. But notice the key difference in structure. Homer doesn't do an equal crosscut. He heavily weights the story in favor of the traveling hero. This gives the story a building line and a powerful spine on which to hang all the symbolic elements that come with the myth form (for more on this see the Myth Class).

The biggest drawback to doing a crosscut throughout most of Cold Mountain is that it kills the love story. The lovers barely have time to meet and have a quick kiss before they are separated. Yet we are supposed to believe they will both fight through three years of silence and the worst assaults of war to get back together.

Of course the thematic point of the crosscut is that the juxtaposition of the two story lines creates a larger point through comparison. But here that comparison remains on the broadest level, showing that the two leads are equal in the obstacles they must overcome for their love. But the specific scenes where the crosscuts occur are largely wasted.

This film almost overcomes its foundation structural weakness through a number of excellent scenes. But then it commits one of the great sins of storytelling, the false ending. When an audience invests two and a half hours of their time watching two people struggle through hell to be together, you better have a profound reason to kill one of them at the end.

In Cold Mountain, we're not even close to profound. Yes, in war, especially civil war, a lot of people die. But by that logic, you could kill off everyone in this story. But killing off one of the lovers after all that effort serves no thematic point, and gives no new story value.

It is fake tragedy, what I call "death ex machina." It doesn't make your movie better. It just pisses people off.

Dec 20, 2003

Something's Gotta Give

Something's Gotta Give comes off as an argument in praise of older women, which is exactly what one of the characters preaches at the dinner table near the beginning of the film.

If you're writing a script where you are literally trying to prove a premise, you have to hide and sugarcoat it. For example, the writers of Tootsie want to show that men are chauvinists with women, and they do so with a guy forced to dress up as a woman and a swirl of characters creating an intricate plot weave.

When your premise is out in the open like this one is, you cause yourself all kinds of problems. First, your dialogue is stilted. Second, you make the actors look like they are acting whenever they try to say the lines. Third, you kill the plot. If we are waiting for both characters to play out their side of the premise and they do, just as we thought, we have no surprise and no payoff.

Sure enough, tough but brilliant Erica learns to live a little. Harry learns to fall for a woman's "deeper" qualities and decides to spend the rest of his life with a great older woman.

But the writer (and director) gives Erica too little time to fall, based on too little from Harry. It's not as unbelievable as Helen Hunt falling for Nicholson in As Good As It Gets, but it's close.

All love stories are contrived. The trick is to hide the contrivance, give characters some real reasons to fall for each other, and give them enough screen time to do it. Don't underestimate this form. Love is among the most highly choreographed of all genres, and when it's connected with comedy it's even tougher. (See either the Comedy Class or the Love Story Class). But when it is done with a high level of craft, it is always popular.