Dec 30, 2006

Dreamgirls


All musicals have a special problem when it comes to storytelling. They use two tracks of communication, drama and music. The writer must let each form do what it does best and then somehow connect them and make them appear to be one line.

Dreamgirls has many fine elements, most especially some of its pop songs and a number of dazzling performances. But the screenplay is not its strength. The script is serviceable, allowing the writer to hang the songs on a storyline. But even that breaks down about half way through, so the second half of the movie feels like a concert with too many songs stuffed down our throats.

Not surprisingly, the story problems come out of the character setup. In the beginning of the film, Effie is the main character. She is the lead singer and the driving force in the group's desire to reach the top. But the Dreamgirls are quickly taken over by Curtis (Jamie Foxx), who determines all the action steps the group will take. The problem with Curtis as a character is that there is nothing inside. He's not a person, he's a money-making machine. Also, even though he is driving the action, he is the Dreamgirls' main opponent.

This kind of character setup isn't a problem as long as Effie is the lead singer of the group. But halfway through the story, she gets tossed out. At this point Dreamgirls essentially ends. But there's still half a movie to go, and the second half feels infinitely longer than the first. Why? Notice the domino effect. Replacing Effie as lead singer is Deena (Beyonce Knowles), who has been chosen because she is so plastic and bland. So she can't carry the second half of the story. That leaves the plot pusher, Curtis, but all of his action steps at this point involve making more money, which is the same story beat. So the story fractures and grinds to a halt. Now the songs have no line to hang on, no emotion to punctuate. No matter how good a song might be on its own, each one feels, at this point in the film, like a big fat blob. I found myself begging the screen, "Please don't make me sit through another interminable song."

A lot has been made of the writer's attempt to go beyond the personal to the historical and the political. To show the rise of black music during the civil rights era and how black music was then co-opted by the white corporate establishment. I certainly applaud the effort. But the technique isn't there. Again the prime culprit is all those never-ending songs. The writer has no time to develop the complex interconnections between the musical history and the political history. So he relies on the old film chestnut, the montage. This is shorthand writing, and all it does is confirm the simplest stereotypes. In fact, Dreamgirls includes one of the most offensive scenes of the year, when it shows a terrific "black" song being stolen and defiled by a truly horrible white pop band that is supposed to stand for all "white" music.

For me the most interesting element in this movie is one it did not intend. Thematically it paints itself into a corner; it moves logically and inexorably to an indictment of itself. Dreamgirls supposedly shows the history of Motown music, but it doesn't have any Motown songs. It shows the corruption of soul music into generic pap, acceptable to all, and the movie is just another example of that endpoint.

Dec 14, 2006

The Holiday


The first requirement of any genre film is that you hit the unique story beats that define the form. Depending on the genre, you will have anywhere from 8-15 beats that you must include or your audience will be disappointed. The second requirement of any genre film is that you twist these beats in a unique way to make your inherently generic story original.

Most writers fail at the first requirement either because they don't know the genres they are using or because they haven't studied their genres sufficiently. More advanced writers tend to fail in the second requirement, and we need look no further than the romantic comedy, The Holiday. The Holiday is what you get when the writer hits the love story beats in the most predictable way possible.

This film seems to have a terrific "high concept" premise. Two women with love troubles, one American and one British, trade houses and find true love in the other's country. But premises can be deceiving, especially high concept ones. That's why I go through so many premise techniques in the Great Screenwriting Class. Premise is where 95% of writers fail, because they don't know how to break down a premise idea and figure out the structural problems they are bound to face.

The premise of The Holiday has a number of hidden flaws that almost guarantee it will be a predictable, phony script. Most importantly, we have two lead characters who cross paths in mid air and play out their stories in separate locations. Notice two crucial effects. First, the writer has half the time for character development for each of the two leads. Second, the story structure is by necessity a cross cut structure. Cross cut highlights comparison between characters. But with each character having half the time for development, the comparison between these two characters only highlights how clich├ęd and shorthand the writer has drawn them.

A perfect example of this is the ghost and need of the Cameron Diaz character, Amanda. In love stories the ghost and need is always some version of a cycle of fear that is preventing the hero from being able to love. Amanda's inability to love comes from the fact that her parents split up and left her literally unable to cry. When Amanda explains this ghost and need to her love interest, it's so phony and on-the-nose that I thought I saw a flashing red sign above her head saying: STORY BEAT ALERT!!! This leads to the phoniest, on-the-nose self-revelation of the year when Amanda discovers that she really is in love with her guy because, you guessed it, SHE CRIES REAL TEARS!!!

Genres are formulaic, but that doesn't mean you have to write them that way. If you want to know how to meet but also transcend the story beats of the romantic comedy, take a look at either the Love Story Class or the Comedy Class. It's all about learning your form well enough so you can take a chance on being original and know you have a rock solid story structure to back you up.