Dec 22, 2005

Brokeback Mountain

Brokeback Mountain works as well as it does because it uses the love story genre, not drama, to make its point. Had the writers done this as a social drama, they would have focused everything on the central issue at stake. They would have used a lot of moral argument in the dialogue, which would have immediately raised the defenses of all those on the other side of the issue.

But the love story genre is much trickier, and far more effective. The love story is based on what two people feel for each other. What’s at stake in the story is not the characters. It’s the love itself. There is almost no moral argument in this film about the injustice of these two men unable to be together. Instead we see the positive effect on them when they are together. And we see the negative effect, not only on them but on everyone around them, when they are forced apart.

Because the writers understood this story strategy, and executed it so well, the great flaw in the script stands out even more clearly. For the story to have its greatest impact, the initial attraction between the two men can’t just be physical. This has to be a deep romantic love between them, and the reasons for that romantic love have to be made clear from the start. Instead all we get are a few short scenes of them working together on the mountain, and suddenly they are drunk having sex in the tent. That means everything they feel for each other afterwards must just be assumed. True, they act as though they feel deeply for each throughout the rest of the picture. But without the emotional groundwork at the beginning, the audience can only know how they feel on an intellectual level. They can’t really feel it themselves.

I always say, you can’t montage love. That’s true no matter who the lovers are.

Dec 15, 2005


Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana is one of the most ambitious scripts to come out of Hollywood in a long time. His story strategy is a strange combination of showing the audience an extremely big picture while also placing them in extreme ignorance. He tells a very horizontal story, showing many elements and forces working at one time, but also puts the audience in the same position as a cop trying to figure out a crime.

Gaghan is clearly within the storytelling tradition of the last hundred years in which the viewer comes to understand over the course of the story. This approach reached its apex in such European films as Last Year at Marienbad and The Conformist. It makes the audience work hard, but the endpoint is supposed to be a deeper learning of the real patterns of the world.

Unfortunately, that never happens in Syriana. What comes together at the end is the idea that the powerful of the world conspire together to increase and perpetuate the powers that be. But we know that from the beginning. The specifics of what happens remain confusing and there is almost no emotional completion.

When you make the audience work this hard to figure out so many strands, and force them to sit in ignorance for almost the entire film, you had better have a fantastic plot revelation at the end. In effect, if you make them take their medicine, you have to give them a great treat for their effort. But we never get the treat. Gaghan might argue that he is purposely trying to cut against a big Hollywood finish, with everything tied up neatly. But giving the audience a great plot isn’t “going Hollywood.” It’s good writing.

Even if you accept this excuse for a flat plot payoff, Gaghan has to justify taking the medicine with something. With an intellectual, multi-strand movie like this, the payoff isn’t going to be emotional. It has to be a great thematic revelation. But this too is missing. We know from the beginning that big corporations run the world and get most of what they want. So learning that at the end is not learning anything.

Study this script carefully if you want to see the strengths and weaknesses of horizontal storytelling. Perhaps the biggest insight a writer can take from Syriana is: the more characters you track in a story, the harder it is to make an emotional impact on the audience.

Nov 11, 2005


Spoiler Alert: This review gives away plot information.

Jarhead shows maleness in the extreme better than any film I've ever seen. And yet it is painfully dull.

The reason is found in the most basic of all story structure steps, the desire line. The hero and his fellow soldiers all want to shoot someone, and they go the whole movie and the whole Gulf War without doing so. This film is one humongous stall. And without a desire line, there is no plot.

Of course the writer would argue that this is all part of the theme. He purposely deprives these kill-happy guys of their climax to show how self-destructive it is being a killer. Unable to climax, they burn themselves up with kill lust. From the beginning, these Marines have their guns all cocked with nowhere to go. So by the end, unable to shoot their weapons at a human being, they join in a final bacchanalia in the desert and are reduced to firing their automatic weapons impotently into the air.

But that makes the story two hours of proving a thesis. Two hours of shoving the audience, one scene after another, into extreme maleness. Some of these scenes are brutal, some are hilarious. But it's always the same beat. And the audience is the anvil.

Oct 8, 2005


Proof is a highly-intelligent play in the tradition of Arcadia and Copenhagen. Writer David Auburn uses math as a foundation for a story about gender expectations, madness and love.

While Michael Freyn in Copenhagen uses the detective form to explore the Uncertainty Principle in personal relationships, Auburn uses the detective form to explore proof of identity and trust.

The structure gives us a first act that sets up a crime, and yet no crime seems to have been committed. The second act solves the crime that may not have been a crime at all.

See or read this play for techniques in bending a genre, in this case, the infinitely-malleable detective story.

Sep 5, 2005

The Constant Gardener

The Constant Gardener shows us what happens when a film's moral argument outweighs its story. The film has a serious thesis it wants to express concerning the plight of Africans and the responsibility of pharmaceutical companies that supply them with drugs. There's nothing wrong with starting with a theme and creating a story from that. But it had better be a good story.

In The Constant Gardener the writer chooses the thriller and love story on which to hang the thematic line. A diplomat's wife is killed and he sets out to find out who did it and why. This brings him into considerable danger of being killed himself. He learns that his wife had discovered truly horrible crimes committed by drug companies in Africa.

To make this work, the writer has two big requirements. First he has to show that this was a great love between husband and wife, because the husband must risk his own death to finish the job his wife started. Second, the writer must come up with a detective plot that is full of reveals and surprises, or else the audience is going to see early on that this story is just an excuse to attack international drug companies in Africa.

Unfortunately the writer fails in both of these requirements. The husband and wife meet at a lecture, go to bed together in the next scene, and then head off to Africa as husband and wife. The wife doesn't trust her husband enough to tell him about the secret investigation she is pursuing. And there is little evidence that their marriage is anything but a convenient connection between two good friends.

It's one of the great rules of storytelling that you can't montage love. An audience can't intellectually know that two people love each other. They have to feel it, and that takes screen time. Without the foundation of a strong love between the two characters, the husband's quest to uncover the injustice, in the face of almost certain death, is emotionally unbelievable. And the quest driving three quarters of the movie just falls apart.

The writer also fails to come up with a detective plot to justify the length of the story. Detective stories work by withholding information from the audience. If that information, in the form of reveals, is not surprising or shocking, the story feels like a giant stall. The wheels of the mechanism show and the audience gets impatient and bored. If the theme is top-heavy to boot, the lack of storytelling ability is fatal.

May 14, 2005


Crash is an excellent example of horizontal storytelling, for both what works and what doesn't. Horizontal storytelling is everything happening at the same time. Vertical, or linear, storytelling is what happens next. Horizontal storytelling works primarily by comparison. Vertical storytelling shows the development of one thing, usually a central character.

Horizontal storytelling causes all kinds of problems, which is why it is very rare. First, there's so much cross-cutting between approximately equal events in time that narrative drive stops.

Second, you have to present so many characters that you can't explore any of them in much depth.

Third, you have to rely too much on coincidence to bring characters together and give the story some shape, some vertical development. Otherwise the horizontal spirals out to infinity.

Fourth, you often can't find a way to end the story other than to just stop. When one story event doesn't follow necessarily from another, there is no 'right' final scene, just the last thing that happened in time.

To deal with these problems, the first thing the horizontal storyteller has to do is come up with an organizing principle, an underlying unifier that gives a logic to the unfolding. Writers Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco use a subject, and this immediately causes problems of its own.

The first problem these writers encounter by using a subject is that the one they choose, racism, is likely to blow up in their face. Any story that tries to talk about racism will appear to many in the audience to be racist. If the strategy is to show characters believing the stereotypes of the various races in order to reverse or upset them, the author may seem to believe the stereotypes himself.

A second problem the writers encounter by using a social subject as their organizing principle is that the story feels heavy-handed from the opening scene. When you are writing an extremely horizontal story, you have to do many more scenes of racial set-up, so the first third at least of the movie is in grave danger of infuriating the audience into giving up.

Crash shows all of these problems of the horizontal form at the beginning. But Haggis and Moresco know how to use the benefits of the form as well. For example, they know that the horizontal story, while running the risk of superficiality, allows them to set up a giant moral accounting system. Each character, with his unique moral flaw, gets his poetic justice through the help of every other character. This is cosmic, Twilight Zone accounting, like Vertigo, but on a much grander scale.

With the thematic heavy-handedness in the beginning of the story, Crash's grand accounting program may feel a bit schematic. The more you push the horizontal, the more you stretch the skin and bones of the organic body to its breaking point, the more you show the contrivance, the mechanism, of the author underneath.

But about a third of the way into this film, the benefits of the horizontal story form start to kick in. Much of the pleasure of the grand accounting comes in the pleasures of the comparisons, of who will show up to give a character his comeuppance. This is the pleasure of the grand story weave. It requires top plotting ability, and these writers have it.

The story weave, in the form of reveals and reversals, is also what saves the film from being too morally top-heavy. Having done the difficult set-up work, the film can run a series of great flips: the car on fire, the little girl, the guy releasing the slaves, etc.

Another benefit of the horizontal form is that you can set the firing pins to go off for all the characters about the same time, so you can give a succession of hard shots to the head and body of the audience. By the end of the film, these shots come with terrific intensity.

There is one more bonus to the horizontal story, and it's a thematic one. This complex social weave is the story equivalent of a Breughel painting, for example, the large canvas of the village in winter where pockets of individuals and groups go about their daily affairs, largely unaware of each other, but as part of a diverse community where the hidden hand of mutual benefit is always working. In Crash, the characters are divided off from one another by their city and their cars. But in the rare moments of connection, these people, each with the same moral blind spot, show their essential humanity.