Dec 30, 2004


James Brooks' Spanglish is a classic case of a film with some great lines and moments wasted by weak character and structure.

The film starts with a storyteller, Cristina, recounting the path that led her, a poor Mexican girl, to apply to an elite American college. Structurally, then, she is the main character and the story line is how her mother, Flor, changed her life.

But this places certain requirements on the character. She must have unique weaknesses and a Need that, through struggle, will lead her to a self-revelation at the end of the story. And since her mother is the main agent for that change, the mother should have weaknesses and a need, otherwise the story is nothing more than hero worship.

But this girl is barely drawn. Yes, she learns the value of keeping her unique Mexican traditions while succeeding in an American world. But there is really no weakness or need defined for this child at the beginning. And mother Flor is such a mature, advanced and beautiful human being from the start that all one should logically do is stare at this woman in awe.

The structure is further confused by the fact that this is a Hollywood mainstream movie. Which means that a little Mexican girl is not going to drive this story. The story will be driven by American movie star Adam Sandler and his movie wife, played by Tea Leoni.

But they haven't been set up structurally to drive the movie. Sandler's character, John, is even more perfect than Flor. His only flaw is being foolish enough to have married Leoni's nutcase character, Deborah, in the first place. Deborah has plenty of weaknesses and needs. But not the kind that show character complexity. Her weaknesses and needs are so extreme she is a caricature. She is the comic version of the mother in Ordinary People, a woman of such towering insensitivity and neuroses that no one could stand to be with her for longer than ten minutes.

Brooks tries to tack on some kind of self-revelation and moral decision when John and Flor admit their love for each other but won't go off together because of what it would do to their kids. But this doesn't work for all kinds of reasons. First, neither one is the structural main character. Second, this is two perfectly righteous characters acting righteously. And three, they are actually making the wrong decision; the best thing that could happen to their kids is to get them as far away from Deborah as possible.

There are some great lines in this movie. But these aren't real people. And that means the mechanics of the storytelling is always right on the surface.

Nov 12, 2004


The big lesson of Alfie is the difference of episodic and organic story. An episodic story is one in which the individual event or scene stands alone. An organic story is one in which all the events and scenes are connected under the surface and build to a surprising but also logically necessary ending.

This film is extremely episodic. Alfie loves a number of women who are only mildly different. So each segment seems like the same beat, hit again and again.

Couple this with a simplistic moral decline on the part of the hero and you have a predictable story that devolves. This is the kiss of death.

All good fiction has a strong moral element, but a moral tale is too heavy-handed. The original Alfie was also episodic. But it had the great advantage of a hero whose hedonistic, amoral lifestyle was in shocking contrast to the prevailing morality and movie history at the time.

Forty years later, showing a playboy who learns that easy sex is hollow is so common, obvious and p.c. that the point is made by the second scene of the film. Everything after that is a test of endurance.

Jan 18, 2004

Big Fish

The teller of tall tales takes on a tough task (besides risking too much alliteration). The tales have to be exceptionally creative, because they are supposed to surprise and delight. But their fabulist nature also makes it more difficult to affect the audience emotionally. The audience knows the stories are fake and thus have no anchor in real human need and motivation.

Tall tales also tend to become highly episodic. Made up of bizarre and outlandish events, they highlight a moment or a single image instead of a steadily building web of cause-and-effect.

Big Fish doesn't know how to solve the unique problems of the tall tale. It's a patchwork script, and its attempts at solutions just make the problems worse.

The writer tries to affect the audience emotionally by framing the fantasy story with a son's attempt to get close to his storytelling father. This line is psychologically real but boring in its execution. It also feels like much ado about nothing. So what if dad likes to make up stories and repeat them a few too many times.

What's worse, this technique of a second, realistic story line backfires. Instead of anchoring the tall tales in some recognizable human emotion, the realistic line cross cut with the fantastical line seems like two different movies stuck together, and neither is done well.

An even more serious flaw with this script is that the tall tales aren't that delightful. This is where the fantasy game is won or lost. In Big Fish we have a giant who doesn't do much, a big fish, and a parachute drop behind enemy lines where the hero encounters a woman with two heads.

There is a Utopian town, which is quite common in fantasy and can be very powerful. But this town is never explained or given any larger symbolic meaning.

The first lesson here is simple. If you are going to do tall tales, do them all the way. You're in the fantasy genre, and once you get the audience in its own fantastical world, you have to keep them there.

In the Fantasy Class, I talk about the fact that fantasy is more dependent on the premise set up than any other form. If you don't get in and out of the fantasy properly, you can't build the fantasy and you can't make the necessary emotional connection between the fantasy events and the characters' psychology in the real world.

The second lesson is: once your audience is in the fantasy world, you better tell the most imaginative tall tales anyone has ever seen. Great fantasy is about showing people possibilities they never even dreamed of. That's a high standard, but in this form it's the only one that really matters.