Jun 25, 2008

Sex and the City

Spoiler Alert: this breakdown divulges information about the end of the film.

Sex and the City was a revolutionary TV show. Not because it showed women having lots of sex. That part was always unbelievable. Even young hip New York women don’t have that much sex with that many different partners or they’d be dead. No, Sex and the City was a big deal because it showed women as main characters in the story of their lives, not as the supporting girlfriend to the male hero. It showed women in the day-to-day business of work and love – the very fabric of human life – and it didn’t apologize for the fact that women craft their lives differently than men. If you don’t think that’s a big deal, try traveling the world as I did during the run of the show and hearing women from every conceivable nationality rave about this show.

Over the years the show went from Sex in the City to Relationships in the City, which was more believable but less fun. Especially when two of the women got themselves into relationships that were just plain dumb. Smart lawyer Miranda with Steve the bartender was painful to watch, and hear, since Steve’s how-dumb-can-I-talk voice was like nails on a chalkboard. And Charlotte’s marriage to the impotent mama’s boy was a clear case of theme driving plot into never-never land.

Now comes the movie and it is surprisingly effective. I say surprisingly because turning a TV show into a good movie is extremely difficult, with a very low success rate. There are a number of reasons for the success of Sex (and no, the sex is not one of them). But let me focus on two. The first is the character web on which the book and the show were originally built. Character web is a crucial structural element for any work of fiction, in whatever medium, but it’s especially important in TV. In the TV Drama Class I point out that mainstream Hollywood film emphasizes a single main character going after a single goal with a one-time plot that is usually highly intricate. TV, on the other hand, emphasizes a community of characters the audience wants to visit once a week, with plot being secondary and often predictable. Plot has grown more important on TV for “24” and “Lost”, but they are still the exception.

With character community being primary, how you set up the character oppositions for the leads of the show is crucial. The four women on Sex represent four unique approaches to how modern single women craft their work-love lives. There’s the driven professional woman, the narcissistic sexaholic, and the Princess who expects life to be a fairy tale. At the center of this mix is Carrie, a combination of all three who is the only truly well-rounded character of the four.

This highly-differentiated character web sets up a second major reason for the success of the Sex movie, the story weave. In the Advanced Screenwriting Class I talk about an advanced storytelling strategy called the branching structure. In multiple character stories, each character represents a branch. The trick is how you combine these branches without destroying all narrative drive. If you crosscut equally between many characters, the story has to track too many simultaneous actions and narrative drive disappears.

But because Carrie is the first among equals in the character web, the branching story weave here is more like a single trunk with three other branches extending off. Carrie’s story provides the strong spine that a mainstream Hollywood movie requires while the stories of the other women provide sub-plots, with each being a variation on the main line. Luckily Carrie has that one big event that can provide the spine of the movie, her pending wedding to Big. This event also focuses the theme of the film so that each of the four women can present a different approach to the question: how do women deal with the deeply-ingrained fairy tale image of being married to a man?

Unfortunately this event left me quite ambivalent. I too wanted the fairy tale ending; boys watch Disney movies too. But emotionally it wasn’t right. It wasn’t earned. Here is a guy who has “jilted” Carrie for the entire TV show, then does it again at the altar, and she takes him back one more time. The writer justifies it through the Miranda subplot with Steve (also fake), with the statement that “You’ve got to forgive.” Well, no, you don’t. If the guy keeps blowing you off and humiliating you time and again in the process, at some point it’s the mark of a mature person to say, “Get the hell out of my life.”

Of course, Carrie’s marriage to Big does set up the inevitable sequel to this blockbuster film. Anyone want to place bets on Big being faithful?

Jun 16, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

“What a drag it is getting old.” Yes, Mick, it is. Cultural icons are supposed to be immune from old age. But actors, even action heroes like Harrison Ford, are not. And that has a ripple effect through this entire movie.

Try as he might, Ford can’t convincingly do the moves of Indy in his prime. And no amount of editing or movie slight of hand can hide it. So the story mechanics, and this genre has a lot of them, show through in glaring detail.

Perhaps as a compensation, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has gone slapstick. A lot of the action scenes look like the Keystone Cops. As a comic book action serial, the Indiana Jones movies have always walked the fine line between serious action – where death is believable – and comic action – where the audience can come along on the joyride. But when you go too far into the comical, and particularly slapstick, you run into the problem of the later Matrix films. The first Matrix was man-on-man conflict where the fights seemed real and there was some suspense about whether the hero would win. The later Matrix films were one against a hundred, so the punches looked like cartoons and there was never any doubt of victory.

Screenwriter David Koepp, a seasoned pro, tries to “take the stink off” the problem by admitting Indy’s age up front. He also tries to make the story personal, similar to the successful strategy used in the Batman series (Batman Begins) and the James Bond series (Casino Royale). Koepp brings back Marian and introduces a young sidekick whose Brando motorcycle uniform is suddenly hip again compared to 40s Indy. But it doesn’t work. Indy is the classic rogue action hero, and trying to turn him into a family man just made me cringe.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull also suffers from a major structural flaw in the script, a weak opponent. The action-fantasy form has a clear divide between those films with a comical opponent – which are usually failures – and those that have a believably deadly opponent – which are usually a success. Here we have a Soviet death mistress, played by Cate Blanchett, who looks like she’s straight out of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Blanchett’s voice and hair make her such a dead ringer for Natasha, I was waiting for Boris to show up and at least make the movie funny. But alas he never came.

Finally Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull dies from no plot. In the Action Class, I explain why this is always a big problem in the action form. Most screenwriters don’t know that action is not the same as plot, and that if not handled properly, action will kill your plot. This is especially true in James Bond-like action stories in which an unbeatable hero is challenged in a series of all-out attacks. The story becomes a series of stunts, of action set pieces, each the same beat with a different skin. In short, no plot.

Not that any of this has hurt the box office. But you only have to look at the second Pirates of the Caribbean to know that the script is not the only source of a film’s success, or even the major one. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull shows us once again George Lucas’s ability to create a cultural icon that can grab the imagination of the world.

John Truby