Let me start off by saying I love Groundhog Day, Harold Ramis’ classic 1993 comedy starring Bill Murray as a selfish weatherman finding redemption through reliving the same day over and over again. I first saw it in the theater with my father when I was six years old, and I’ve often found myself revisiting it over the past 20 years. It’s a funny, warm, even sentimental film – certainly one of the most unique romantic comedies ever produced – but those aren’t the elements that have stuck with me all this time. Even as a six-year-old, I could detect a deeply disturbing subtext that left a strange taste in my mouth; as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more and more fascinated by this otherwise cheerful film’s nightmarish traits. Upon watching it again this Groundhog Day, I’ve come to the conclusion that Groundhog Day is one of the more unsettling movies I’ve ever seen.
Charles Chaplin. The name alone evokes cinema at its highest level. His films (“The Gold Rush”, “Modern Times”, “City Lights”) are viewed as brilliant commentaries on the human condition and are screened countless times a year by regional film societies across the world. If Charles Chaplin films were to be outlawed tomorrow, people everywhere would see it as a grave injustice.
Beavis and Butt-head. The name alone evokes television at its lowest level. Their shorts (“Dude, a Reward”, “Bang the Drum Slowly, Dumbass”, “The Mystery of Morning Wood”) are viewed as juvenile pieces of brain poison and are watched on Hulu and Netflix by thousands of half-awake twenty-something guys at 2:30 in the morning. If ‘Beavis and Butt-head’ were to be outlawed tomorrow, uh, I guess some people would be pissed for a few days.
by Michael Neelsen
“No scene that doesn’t turn.”
Such is the motto of Robert McKee’s bible for storytellers, Story. Until I read his book a couple years ago and started hearing more and more screenwriters refer to “turns” and “reversals” and “turning left when they think you’ll turn right,” I had no idea how important a concept this was for screenwriting.
If William Goldman is right and “screenplays are structure,” then scenes are turns.
The next time you watch a film, really pay close attention to the structure of the individual scenes. Nearly every movie that follows classic Hollywood storytelling conventions will construct every scene around at least one turn. The beginning of the scene will present one situation, and by the end of the scene, that situation will turn to something else. The character will start happy and turn sad. The hero will be losing the battle and suddenly summon the strength to win. The girl will be making a fool of herself in front of the boy, but the boy will actually find this cute instead of foolish.
An extreme type of turn is called a reversal. These are 180-degree turns from one extreme to its polar opposite. Alive to dead. Attraction to repulsion. Kill to rescue.
One of the best reversals I’ve seen comes in Shane Black’s noir-comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. In the scene, Robert Downey, Jr. is about to play Russian roulette on a prisoner in order to convince him to divulge information. We’ve seen this scenario play out a thousand times, and Black knows it. Downey puts a single bullet in the chamber of a revolver and aims it at the prisoner. He cries out, “Where is the girl?” and pulls the trigger. Since we’ve seen this scenario play out before, we expect it to go the exact same way as it always has: click, click, and finally the prisoner can’t take the fear of being shot anymore and gives up everything. But in Black’s film, before the prisoner can even deny knowing anything, the first pull of the trigger sends the only bullet in the revolver into his head, killing him. This always gets a rousing response of uproarious laughter from the audience, because we weren’t expecting it to go that way.
Another great example comes in Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges. Brendon Gleeson enters the scene wanting to kill his longtime friend played by Colin Farrell. But when he approaches Farrell with his gun drawn, he suddenly sees Farrell pull his own gun on himself in attempted suicide. Gleeson’s friend instincts kick in as his motivation goes from wanting to kill Farrell to wanting to save Farrell.
While you don’t need a reversal in every scene, it’s good to have as many as you can come up with. It keeps us on the edge of our seat. It’s the quality that makes us all say, “I had no idea what was going to happen in that movie.” It’s even better if you can play on previous cinematic convention like Black does in Bang Bang, making us expect something we’ve seen a trillion times only to deliver the exact opposite.
My acting teacher, Ben Taylor, recently wrote a hilarious scene that takes place in a gay strip club. It shows a drunk, middle-aged man stumbling around, seemingly infatuated with one of the boy dancers on stage. When another one of the employees at the bar tries to escort the man away, he cries out, “I’m his father!” Everyone freezes. Shock. A father has come in to a gay strip club and discovered his own son as a performer. This is the scene’s turn. But then the boy dancer shouts from the stage, “You’re not my father!” The drunk man replies, “Okay, I’m not his father.” This is a reversal of the initial turn, and got tons of laughs.
You can fold this on itself as much as the logic in your narrative allows. But there is a danger in placing too many turns and reversals in your scenes. It can start to come across as absurd coincidence. I just made this mistake in a scene I wrote for class. In my scene, a man returns home to his apartment, drunk, to find that all the furniture has been changed (turn #1). He also finds a woman he doesn’t know lying on his bed, beckoning him to stay with her (turn #2). When he starts to give in to her, thinking it’s just his lucky day, she mentions her husband (turn #3). Our hero asks her what apartment number this is. She says 304. Our hero freaks and proclaims, “I’m on the wrong floor! My key opened your door!” (turn #4). When he tries to leave, there’s a knock at the door. It’s the woman’s husband (turn #5). When the husband enters and sees our hero, it turns out they are old college buddies! (turn #6). Instead of kicking him out, the husband invites our hero to stay for dinner (turn #7). While I got decent notes on this scene in class, there’s no question that it is absolutely absurd, and I feel adequately displays the risk of implanting too many turns in a single narrative (for an example of a movie that does this, look no further than 2005′s inexplicable Best Picture winner, Crash, in which a select number of characters continue to conveniently bump into each other multiple times in a single day in a city of nearly ten million people).
The opposite extreme, of course, is writing a scene with no turns. If there isn’t a turn in a scene or narrative, you will quickly get bored and wonder why you’re watching it. Think of a scene where a character starts happy and ends happy. Or a narrative where a family is living a nice, quiet life in the suburbs and in the end still lives a nice, quiet life in the suburbs. Stories are change. To quote McKee’s fictional depiction in Adaptation., “Your characters must change, and the change must come from them.”
Sometime in the late eighties to early nineties, Hollywood screenwriter/producer Christopher Vogler wrote a memo for Disney Studios entitled “A Practical Guide to The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” This title is referring to the seminal 1949 non-fiction book by renowned mythographer Joseph Campbell in which he breaks down his theory of the journey of the archetypal hero found in world mythologies, commonly referred to as the monomyth. Campbell’s theory later became the primary inspiration for George Lucas’ Star Wars.
However, Vogler’s memo to Disney influenced the creation of such films as Aladdin, The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. Vogler later expanded the memo and published it as the book The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, which became the inspiration for a number of successful Hollywood films and is believed to have been used in the development of the Wachowski Brothers’ The Matrix.
This memo has become part of Hollywood lore, and I felt that its historical impact on cinematic storytelling made it perfect food for thought for the readers of ATA. Enjoy!
A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO “THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES”
by Christopher Vogler
In the long run, the most influential book of the 20th Century may turn out to be Joseph Campbell’s THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES.
It’s certainly true that the book is having a major impact on writing and story-telling, but above all on movie-making. Aware or not, filmmakers like John Boorman, George Miller, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Francis Coppola owe their successes to the ageless pattern that Joseph Campbell identifies in the book.
The ideas in the book are an excellent set of analytical tools.
With them you can compose a story to meet any situation, a story that will be dramatic, entertaining, and psychologically true.
With them you can always determine what’s wrong with a story that’s floundering, and you can find a better solution to almost any story problem by examining the pattern laid out in the book.
There’s nothing new in the book. The ideas in it are older than the Pyramids, older than Stonehenge, older than the earliest cave painting.
Campbell’s contribution was to gather the ideas together, recognize them, articulate them, name them. He exposed the pattern for the first time, the pattern that lies behind every story ever told.
Campbell is a mythographer — he writes about myths. What he discovered in his study of world myths is that THEY ARE ALL BASICALLY THE SAME STORY — retold endlessly in infinite variation.
He discovered that all story-telling, consciously or not, follows the ancient patterns of myth, and that all stories, from the crudest jokes to the highest flights of literature, can be understood in terms of the “HERO MYTH”; the “MONOMYTH” whose principles he lays out in the book.
Campbell was a student of the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, and the ideas in THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES are often described as Jungian.
The book is based on Jung’s idea of the “Archetypes” constantly repeating characters who occur in the dreams of all people and the myths of all cultures.
Jung believed that these archetypes are reflections of the human mind — that our minds divide themselves into these characters to play out the drama of our lives.
The repeating characters of the hero myth, such as the young hero, the wise old man, the shape-shifting woman, and the shadowy nemesis, are identical with the archetypes of the human mind, as shown in dreams. That’s why myths, and stories constructed on the mythological model, are always psychologically true.
Such stories are true models of the workings of the human mind, true maps of the psyche. They are psychologically valid and realistic even when they portray fantastic, impossible, unreal events.
This accounts for the universal power of such stories. Stories built on the model of THE HERO OF A THOUSAND FACES have an appeal that can be felt by everyone, because they spring from a universal source in the collective unconscious, and because they reflect universal concerns. They deal with universal questions like “Why was I born?” “What happens when I die?” “How can I overcome my life problems and be happy?”
The ideas in the book can be applied to understanding any human problem. They are a great key to life as well as being a major tool for dealing more effectively with a mass audience.
Christ, Hitler, Mohammed, and Buddha all understood the principles in the book and applied them to influence millions.
If you want to understand the ideas behind the HERO MYTH, there’s no substitute for actually reading the book. It’s an experience that has a way of changing people. It’s also a good idea to read a lot of myths, but it amounts to the same thing since Campbell spends most of the book illustrating his point by re-telling old myths.
Campbell gives a condensed version of the hero myth on p. 245.
However, since he uses some specialized technical terms that require going back to his examples in earlier chapters to find out what he’s talking about, I’ve taken the liberty of amending his outline slightly, re-telling the hero myth in my own way. Feel free to do the same. Every story-teller bends the myth to his own purpose.
That’s why THE HERO HAS A THOUSAND FACES
The stages of the HERO are:
1) THE HERO IS INTRODUCED IN HIS ORDINARY WORLD.
Most stories take place in a special world, a world that is new and alien to its hero. If you’re going to tell a story about a fish out of his customary element, you first have to create a contrast by showing him in his mundane, ordinary world. In WITNESS you see both the Amish boy and the policeman in their ordinary worlds before they are thrust into alien worlds — the farmboy into the city, and the city cop into the unfamiliar countryside. In STAR WARS you see Luke Skywalker bored to death as a farmboy before he takes on the universe.
2) THE CALL TO ADVENTURE.
The hero is presented with a problem, challenge, or adventure. Maybe the land is dying, as in the Arthur stories about the search for the Holy Grail. In STAR WARS again, it’s Princess Leia’s holographic message to Obi Wan Kenobi, who asks Luke to join in the quest. In detective stories, it’s the hero accepting a new case. In romantic comedies it could be the first sight of that special — but annoying someone the hero or heroine will be pursuing/sparring with the remainder of the story.
3) THE HERO IS RELUCTANT AT FIRST.
Often at this point, the hero balks at the threshold of adventure. After all, he or she is facing the greatest of all fears — fear of the unknown. At this point Luke refuses Obi Wan’s call to adventure, and returns to his aunt and uncle’s farmhouse, only to find they have been barbecued by the Emperor’s stormtroopers. Suddenly Luke is no longer reluctant, and is eager to undertake the adventure. He is motivated.
4) THE HERO IS ENCOURAGED BY THE WISE OLD MAN OR WOMAN.
By this time many stories will have introduced a Merlin-like character who is the hero’s mentor. In JAWS it’s the crusty Robert Shaw character who knows all about sharks; in the mythology of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, it’s Lou Grant. The mentor gives advice and sometimes magical weapons. This is Obi Wan Kenobi giving Luke Skywalker his father’s light sabre.
The mentor can only go so far with the hero. Eventually the hero must face the unknown by himself. Sometimes the wise old man is required to give the hero a swift kick in the pants to get the adventure going.
5) THE HERO PASSES THE FIRST THRESHOLD.
He fully enters the special world of his story for the first time. This is the moment at which the story takes off and the adventure gets going. The balloon goes up, the romance begins, the plane or spaceship blasts off, the wagon train gets rolling. Dorothy sets out on the Yellow Brick Road. The hero is now committed to his journey… and there’s no turning back.
6) THE HERO ENCOUNTERS TESTS AND HELPERS.
The hero is forced to make allies and enemies in the special world, and to pass certain tests and challenges that are part of his training. In STAR WARS, the cantina is the setting for the forging of an important alliance with Han Solo, and the start of an important enmity with Jabba The Hut. In CASABLANCA, Rick’s Cafe is the setting for the “alliances and enmities” phase, and in many westersn it’s the saloon where these relationships are established.
The tests and challenges phase is represented in STAR WARS by the scene of Obi Wan teaching Luke about the Force, as Luke is made to learn by fighting blindfolded. The early laser battles with the Imperial Fighters are another test which Luke passes successfully.
7) THE HERO REACHES THE INNERMOST CAVE
The hero comes at last to a dangerous place, often deep underground, where the object of his quest is hidden. In the Arthurian stories the Chapel Perilous is the dangerous chamber where the seeker finds the Grail. In many myths the hero has to descend into hell to retrieve a loved one, or into a cave to fight a dragon and gain a treasure. It’s Theseus going into the Labyrinth to face the Minotaur. In STAR WARS it’s Luke and company being sucked into the Death Star where they will rescue Princess Leia. Sometimes it’s the hero entering the headquarters of his nemesis; and sometimes it’s just the hero going into his or her own dream world to confront his or hers worst fears… and overcome them.
8 ) THE HERO ENDURES THE SUPREME ORDEAL.
This is the moment at which the hero touches bottom. He faces the possibility of death, brought to the brink in a fight with a mythical beast. For us, the audience standing outside the cave waiting for the victor to emerge, it’s a black moment. In STAR WARS, it’s the harrowing moment in the bowels of the Death Star, where Luke, Leia and company are trapped in the giant trash-masher. Luke is pulled under by the tentacled monster that lives in the sewage, and is held down so long the audience begins to wonder if he’s dead. E.T. momentarily appears to die on the operating table.
This is a critical moment in any story, an ordeal in which the hero appears to die and is born again. It’s a major source of the magic of the hero myth. What happens is that the audience has been led to identify with the hero. We are encouraged to experience the brink-of-death feeling with the hero. We are temporarily depressed, and then we are revived by the hero’s return from death.
This is the magic of any well-designed amusement park thrill ride. Space Mountain or The Great White Knuckler make the passengers feel like they’re going to die, and there’s a great thrill that comes from surviving a moment like that. This is also the trick of rites of passage and rites of initiation into fraternities and secret societies. The initiate is forced to taste death and experience resurrection. You’re never more alive than when you think you’re going to die.
9) THE HERO SIEZES THE SWORD.
Having survived death, beaten the dragon, slain the Minotaur, the hero now takes possession of the treasure he’s come seeking. Sometimes it’s a special weapon like a magic sword, or it may be a token like the Grail or some elixer which can heal the wounded land. Sometimes the “sword” is knowledge and experience that leads to greater understanding and a reconciliation with hostile forces.
The hero may settle a conflict with his father or with his shadowy nemesis. In RETURN OF THE JEDI, Luke is reconciled with both, as he discovers that the dying Darth Vader is his father, and not such a bad guy after all.
The hero may also be reconciled with a woman. Often she is the treasure he’s come to win or rescue, and there is often a love scene or sacred marriage at this point. Women in these stories (or men if the hero is female) tend to be SHAPE-SHIFTERS. They appear to change in form or age, reflecting the confusing and constantly changing aspects of the opposite sex as seen from the hero’s point of view. The hero’s supreme ordeal may grant him a better understanding of women, leading to a reconciliation with the opposite sex.
10) THE ROAD BACK.
The hero’s not out of the woods yet. Some of the best chase scenes come at this point, as the hero is pursued by the vengeful forces from whom he has stolen the elixir or the treasure. This is the chase as Luke and friends escape from the Death Star, with Princess Leia and the plans that will bring down Darth Vader.
If the hero has not yet managed to reconcile with his father or the gods, they may come raging after him at this point. This is the moonlight bicycle flight of Elliott and E.T. as they escape from “Keys” (Peter Coyote), a force representing governmental authority. By the end of the movie, Keys and Elliott have been reconciled, and it even looks like Keys will end up as Elliott’s father. (The script not the final cut, guys).
The hero emerges from the special world, transformed by his experience. There is often a replay here of the mock death-and-rebirth of stage 8, as the hero once again faces death and survives. Each ordeal wins him new command over the Force. He is transformed into a new being by his experience.
12) RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR.
The hero comes back to his ordinary world, but his adventure would be meaningless unless he brought back the elixir, treasure, or some lesson from the special world. Sometimes it’s just knowledge or experience, but unless he comes back with the exlixir or some boon to mankind, he’s doomed to repeat the adventure until he does. Many comedies use this ending, as a foolish character refuses to learn his lesson and embarks on the same folly that got him in trouble in the first place.
Sometimes the boon is treasure won on the quest, or love, or just the knowledge that the special world exists and can be survived. Sometimes it’s just coming home with a good story to tell.
THE SHORT FORM OF THE HERO STORY:
The hero is introduced in his ordinary world, where he receives the call to adventure. He is reluctant at first but is encouraged by the wise old man or woman to cross the first threshold, where he encounters tests and helpers. He reaches the innermost cave, where he endures the supreme ordeal. He seizes the sword or the treasure and is pursued on the road back to his world. He is resurrected and transformed by his experience. He returns to his ordinary world with a treasure, boon, or elixir to benefit his world.
As with any formula, there are pitfalls to be avoided. Following the guidelines of myth too rigidly can lead to a stiff, unnatural structure, and there is danger of being too obvious.
The HERO MYTH is a skeleton that should be masked with the details of the individual story, and the structure should not call attention to itself. The order of the hero’s stages as given here is only one of many variations. The stages can be deleted, added to, and drastically reshuffled without losing their power.
The values of the myth are what’s important. The images of the basic version — young heroes seeking magic swords from old wizards, fighting evil dragons in deep caves, etc., — are just symbols, and can be changed infinitely to suit the story at hand.
The myth is easily translated to contemporary dramas, comedies, romances, or action-adventures by substituting modern equivalents for the symbolic figures and props of the hero story. The Wise Old Man may be a real shaman or Wizard, but he can also be any kind of mentor or teacher, doctor or therapist, crusty but benign boss, tough but fair top sargeant, parent, grandfather, etc. Modern heroes may not be going into caves and labyrinths to fight their mythical beasts, but they do enter an innermost cave by going into space, to the bottom of the sea, into their own minds, or into the depths of a modern city.
The myth can be used to tell the simplest comic book story or the most sophisticated drama. It grows and matures as new experiments are tried within its basic framework. Changing the sex and ages of the basic characters only makes it more interesting, and allows ever more complex webs of understanding to be spun among them. The basic characters can be combined, or divided into several figures to show different aspects of the same idea. The myth is infinitely flexible, capable of endless variation without sacrificing any of its magic.
And it will outlive us all.
by Michael Neelsen
What makes a good film? What makes a bad film? Is there an objective way of determining the aesthetic, emotional, or social merits of a given movie? I won’t pretend these are new questions – they’ve been asked for as long as cinema has existed, and many people have come up with many different answers (even amongst your humble ATA bloggers!).
My answer is a resounding no. Cinema is art, and art is subjective. What may be one of the best films I’ve ever seen could be considered worthless crap by others (The Fountain). What I may think is one of the most awful loads of bull ever dished out to movie-going audiences may be thought of as an inviting escape into fantasy for others (Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen). And that is okay. We should have different opinions. That’s what makes this fun. Even film critic Roger Ebert told ATA blogger Joe Pudas in his interview that film criticism “has to be first person subjective. It’s not a science, it’s an art.”
However, there are those who believe that there is no debate over whether or not a particular movie is good or bad, just over whether or not you liked it. For example, “There is no debate over whether or not The Godfather is a good film. It is a good film. Whether or not you liked it is your opinion.”
But isn’t the concept of “good” subjective? And if that’s true, what is the purpose of film criticism to begin with? What can a film critic offer to the world besides one more opinion? Perhaps nothing. Or, perhaps a film critic can offer a particularly educated and unique perspective, delving deeper into analyzing the film than your average Joe. Or maybe a critic is literally there just to provoke us all with polarizing opinions that keep us all debating movies forever.
Now let’s take this to the next level. If you buy into the concept that there is no such thing as an objectively good film, how do you feel about awards? More specifically, the Academy Awards? Does winning an Oscar mean anything beyond simply that at that given moment you were “most liked” by Hollywood’s elite? When Crash wins Best Picture, should we all pencil in our books that it truly was the best movie of 2005? I think most of you will agree with me that we should not, unless we agree with the Academy’s opinion.
As a filmmaker, I always used to dream of one day hearing my name called by some megastar and ascending the steps at the Academy Awards to accept my Oscar in front of the nation. I’d fantasized a dozen different speeches, I’m sure. If you ever wanted to make movies, you’ve had this same fantasy many times, discussed it with friends and family, made countless promises to people that you would not forget to thank them on national television, etc.
But why should we yearn for such a thing? Why strive for it? It’s completely out of your control and means nothing if you win it. It doesn’t even guarantee more work or funding for your next project.
What about top ten lists? All film geeks construct them. We spend hours, upon hours tallied up over years building lists of what we feel are the Top Ten Best Movies of All Time. But they’re never the same. And isn’t that the point? We want our friends to have different lists so we can read them, scoff, and scream in their face, “What the crud is Total Recall doing on your list?” But why are we always surprised when our friends have lists that we don’t agree with? And if we’re not surprised, and we know all along that we will never reach a consensus on which ten films truly are the best of all time, what’s the point of constructing the list to begin with?
This may all seem rather elementary, but the problem is that too many people have actually bought into the idea that film criticism can be objective. When Paul Thomas Anderson first walked into a film class, he heard the instructor say, “If you’re here to make the next Terminator 2, you may as well leave now.” PTA left immediately, because he was just as disgusted by that comment as I hope you are right now. Terminator 2 is a badass movie. Why the hell is Potemkin considered to be better? Because it’s harder to watch, and if you make it through you feel like you accomplished something?
The only thing you can possibly objectively rate about a movie is whether or not it works. Does the filmmaker harness the power of cinema? Did he establish the characters well? Did he transition between acts gracefully? Is the cinematography allowing us to see what we need to? Does the plot make sense given the world the filmmakers have established? If these things fall into place, the film isn’t good… it works. At the risk of citing a painfully obvious example, Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will works like a charm. It completely paints Hitler as a national and world hero/savior. But is it a good movie?
And if a film doesn’t really work, it doesn’t mean it’s bad. In Superman, our caped hero flies around the globe at a speed that actually reverses the direction of the earth’s rotation, turning back time. Then, when he’s saved everyone, he goes really fast in the other direction, reversing the rotation of the earth again, supposedly bringing time back up to where it started. Yeah… no. That can’t happen. Reversing the rotation of the earth doesn’t send you backwards or forwards through time. This doesn’t work. But many would still consider Superman a classic. Others may not.
Here’s the deal: There is no objective way to watch movies. Never will be. There is no such thing as a good film or a bad film. There is no such thing as a Top Ten Best Films list, only a Top Ten Favorite Films list, meaning nobody ever has any ground to be offended by someone else’s list, because it’s not claiming authority over you in its title. The concept of awarding a Best Picture award is ludicrous, and the award would inherently mean more to the recipient if it were instead called the “We Like You” award.
And if you disagree with this post – you’re freakin’ WRONG.
by Michael Neelsen
If you’re a filmmaker, you no doubt have had many moments in your work in which you wonder whether what you were trying to do comes across to the audience. Do they think it’s funny? Do they think it’s sad? Do they understand this plot point? Did I establish the MacGuffin well enough?
Well rejoice, ye craftsmen of cinema, for there is at least one certainty in how all films are perceived by their audiences. Pathos, or as Dictionary.com says, “the quality or power in an actual life experience or in literature, music, speech, or other forms of expression, of evoking a feeling of pity or compassion.”
Chaplin was a master of evoking pathos, as were many of the silent filmmakers. They relied on it because they knew it can be one of the most powerful tools to hook your audience into your story. They couldn’t rely on fancy dialogue or a sweeping score (they typically just had a pianist playing whatever behind the screen).
What they learned and demonstrated was that pathos is not a choice for the audience. When you watch a Chaplin film, you can’t help but absolutely love the Little Tramp. And what is the very first thing Chaplin did in every single Little Tramp movie? He showed him down and out, being chased by police or abused by street folk.
Human beings are incapable of watching other human beings being treated badly without feeling sorry for them and wanting them to triumph in the end.
One of my favorite movies is Paul Leni’s 1923 silent film The Man Who Laughs. And how does that movie begin? The very first scene has a nobleman being held captive by King James II in the year 1690.
Here is another lesson: Human beings will always inherently root for the underdog in a situation in which the hero and villain are not directly specified. If your football team didn’t make it to the Super Bowl last Sunday, most likely you went for the New Orleans Saints because of this.
Who is the submissive in the opening scene from Laughs? The nobleman. So, we will root for him without the storyteller telling us to do so. In fact, sometimes, the storyteller can insult his audience’s intelligence by over-articulating who they should root for, instead of allowing them to choose for themselves (which, as I’ve said, isn’t really a choice to begin with. It’s human nature).
One scene later, we are introduced to the protagonist, Gwynplaine, the young son of the nobleman from the first scene. He has been disfigured – he lives with an eternal grim, Carnival freak-like grin on his face, carved by the King’s surgeons as further punishment for the nobleman. Not only that, but he has been left to die in a blizzard.
He has been abused. Without knowing anything else about the character or the movie, we already feel sorry for Gwynplaine and want to see him succeed. We feel like this is a choice we are making, but again, as the filmmaker, you must understand that it is no choice at all.
To use Chaplin as an example, take the opening scene of his masterpiece City Lights, in which the mayor of the city is holding a presentation to unveil a new monument. When they pull the curtain to reveal it, the Little Tramp is found sleeping on it. We don’t need to be told why he’s sleeping on it – there’s only one reason someone would sleep in public – he’s homeless. Pathos is achieved. But now, he’s woken up in front of practically an entire city of people, all shouting, laughing, and jeering at him. He is embarrassed, apologizes, and tries to get down. Who reading this has never been embarrassed in public before? We immediately project our own experiences with embarrassment onto his and feel for him. We may be laughing at him, but we also feel for him and root for him to succeed.
A more modern example: The Big Lebowski. What’s the first scene? The Dude is comically abused by thugs in his own home. Pathos. We may be laughing at him, but want to see him succeed in the end. Or take Avatar, now the highest-grossing film of all time. The first time we see the protagonist in Avatar, we notice he is disabled and gets around in a wheelchair. He’s down and out. Another lesson: Human beings will never root against a disabled character unless he’s a total prick… like Jeffrey Lebowski in The Big Lebowski.
Of course, pathos is by no means the only way to get your audience rooting for your protagonist. There is also admiration. In The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, the first scene with our protagonist shows him pulling off daring, high risk cons on entire towns by bringing in a “captured” wanted bandit only to collect the reward and break him out again at the last second. Admiration isn’t a choice, either. You can’t help but admire the hell outta this guy. You may not agree with his ethics, but you cannot watch him pull this feat off and not root for him.
But although admiration isn’t a choice, it isn’t as simply achieved as pathos. To achieve pathos, all you need to show is your main character being down and out. To achieve admiration, well, you have to somehow give us a reason to admire the character, and that can take some additional brainstorming to come up with, especially for an anti-hero like Clint Eastwood’s character in Ugly. One of the ways to achieve admiration is articulated in Blake Snyder’s book “Save the Cat,” in which he asserts you should literally have your character save something or someone or perform a good deed in the opening scene to make the audience root for him. Personally, I don’t think this is enough. I think it can be used beautifully in addition to pathos, as it is used in The Man Who Laughs when the cold, starving, deformed Gwynplaine saves a freezing infant from the blizzard in his first scene. We already feel sorry for him and he’s thinking of others? That’s some powerful stuff right there.
What’s the lesson you can take from all of this? What’s the lesson I’m taking? I guess it’s just to trust in human nature. When you write a script or direct a movie, human nature is already your collaborator, and you should respect it as such. Trust that if you show your character being down and out the audience will root for him. Trust that if you show your protagonist wanting something but obstructed from achieving it, the audience will inherently project its own desires onto it and want your hero to obtain it.
I’m reminded of a conversation I had last October with writer/director Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight) in which he said that all a storyteller has to do to make his audience feel for a character is have him say, “I’m scared” (Shane was using this as part of a larger point about creating sympathetic antagonists, which is another angle you can go with pathos that is particularly interesting. A hero will always be more interesting if you give him a dark side, and a villain will always be more interesting if you give him a soul. This was one of the primary reasons Shane cited for why he does so much work within film noir.). But take his comment about having your character say “I’m scared” into account. That is how simple this can be.
Now, what you do with your characters in Act Two after you’ve made us feel for them… well, that’s the $64,000 question. Go reread McKee.
Agree/disagree? Leave a comment!
by Michael Neelsen
I have recently been studying the works of the early Soviet film pioneers and their respective texts. While Sergei Eisenstein is the most remembered today, it’s important not to forget that he was but one member of an entire movement in world cinema history that took place in the USSR from 1910 to the mid-1930s. Among these minds were Sergei Eisenstein, Lev Kuleshov, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Dziga Vertov. These four pioneers founded an approach to understanding and creating cinema that relies heavily upon editing which we call Soviet Montage Theory. While Kuleshov, Pudovkin and Vertov put forth explanations of what constitutes the montage effect, Eisenstein’s view that “montage is an idea that arises from the collision of independent shots” wherein “each sequential element is perceived not next to the other, but on top of the other” has become most widely accepted.
According to Eisenstein, there are five METHODS OF MONTAGE.
- Metric: Basic cutting from one moment to the next (based purely on the physical nature of time) no matter what is happening in the image.
- Rhythmic: Cutting based on time, but using the visual composition of the shots — along with a change in the speed of the metric cuts — to induce more complex meanings than what is possible with metric montage. It’s about how the movement in one image affects the movement of the next. Here, movement takes precedence over length. Once sound was introduced, rhythmic montage also included audial elements (music, dialogue, sounds). The most famous use of Rhythmic Montage is the climax to “The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly”. Watch Clint Eastwood’s eyes move back and forth, dictating where the shot cuts to next. Watch Lee Van Cleef’s fingers inch closer and closer to his gun, dictating a cut back to Eastwood’s reacting eyes.
- Tonal: Cutting based on the emotional meaning of the shots – not just manipulating the temporal length of the cuts or its rhythmic characteristics — to elicit a reaction from the audience even more complex than from the metric or rhythmic montage. For example, a sleeping baby would emote calmness and relaxation. At first, this method may seem to fly in the face of Soviet Montage Theory, given that it acknowledges the possibility of individual meaning within the shot, outside of the cut. But the idea here is that you can create a stronger meaning by cutting images together with the same or conflicting tones. Imagine a scene in which you cut between a loud, crazy party on the first floor of a house and the quiet, secluded loneliness of a boy in his room upstairs. Two shots with two tones cut together to create a third tone/meaning.
- Overtonal: Combining Metric, Rhythmic and Tonal cutting together creates Overtonal Montage. It took me a while to understand the difference between Overtonal and Tonal, and I’m not sure I fully get it yet, but I believe Overtonal Montage simply stands for the feeling the viewer has after watching the film. A writing analogy would probably be the “Spine” of a story. Yes, there are beats (metric), there are scenes (rhythmic) and there are sequences (tonal), but put them all together and you have your Spine (overtonal).
- Intellectual: When done correctly, Intellectual Montage might be the most exciting form of cutting. This method is the END ALL, BE ALL of Soviet Montage Theory – cutting two images together to create a third meaning. The most famous use of this method may also be the single most famous cut in cinema history: when the ape throws up a bone in “2001: A Space Odyssey”, then cutting to a bone-shaped spacecraft in the distant future (idea: the dawn of man). Another example would be the intercutting of a soldier’s murder with the slaughtering of a water buffalo in “Apocalypse Now” (idea: the soldier’s life must be sacrificed for the war just as the buffalo must be sacrificed for the tribe), or the cut from Lenny Bruce’s courtroom plea to an image of his dead body at the climax of “Lenny” (idea: the court killed Lenny when they censored him).
Ever since learning about Soviet Montage Theory, I have been a huge believer in it. I even went as far as to say that the very definition of a movie is two images cut together to give a third meaning.
“The idea is in the cut!” I would say. The Soviet pioneers, along with other filmmakers such as David Mamet and Alfred Hitchcock had convinced me of this. I would quote Pudovkin: “The image itself is meaningless! The meaning is within the cut!” This made sense to me. Artistic breakthrough! I’d figured out what makes a movie a movie! Through all my independent study and reading I had discovered the essence of great visual storytelling! It’s the end-all, be-all! Surely, this is the only way one should make a movie!
But I love Quentin Tarantino. And Paul Thomas Anderson. And Martin Scorsese. These filmmakers don’t always rely on the cut. All three of these filmmakers have made a name for themselves with long, extended takes and flashy steadicam shots. Did this mean that their films were overpraised? Were they missing the point of a movie, as I had discovered it to be “within the cut”? David Mamet always spoke out against the very invention of the steadicam, arguing that it was like following around your actors, which isn’t visual storytelling.
Then I saw Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” and my world really came crashing down. The ballet scene between Chaplin and the floating globe has instantly become one of my favorite scenes in cinema history, and the CUTS MEAN NOTHING. It was all about content!
Another one of my favorite scenes in cinema history is the begging scene in Vittorio De Sica’s “Umberto D.” This scene is also all about content. The method of montage never raises beyond metric or potentially rhythmic. Why, then did I love it so much? Did I just have incredibly bad taste?
Then I remembered a quote from my favorite director of all time, Stanley Kubrick, from a rare interview taken in 1969 as he was promoting “2001”:
“I’ve always said the two people who are worthy of film study are Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles as representing the two most diverse approaches to filmmaking. Charlie Chaplin must have had the crudest, simplest lack of interest in cinematics. Just get the image on the screen; it’s the content of the shot that matters. Welles is probably, at his best, the most baroque kind of stylist in the conventional film-telling style. I think perhaps Eisenstein might be a better example because where Chaplin had all content and no style, Eisenstein had all style and no content. Alexander Nevsky stylistically is possibly one of the most beautiful movies ever made; it’s content to me is a moronic story, moronically told, full of lies. It’s the most dishonest kind of film. And I would have thought that perhaps a study of Chaplin’s greatest films and Alexander Nevsky would be worthwhile, because somewhere within that you’d see how two completely diverse approaches can make a fascinating film.” – Stanley Kubrick
And therein, in a quote from the great Kubrick himself, lies the great debate between Montage and Mise en scène!
But without cuts, where is the conflict of ideas? With intellectual montage, I can cut between a shot of ants climbing up a branch and a shot of people crossing a busy Manhattan intersection to create the third idea of “we people are just like ants.” It’s meaning is contained in the “conflict” of these two drastic images.
So where is the conflict in the scene from “The Great Dictator”? It’s within the CONTENT. Look at the content of the scene. Chaplin is playing a character based on Adolph Hitler, arguably the single most universally hated man of the 20th century. He is the very personification of evil…
… and he’s performing a ballet.
WHAM! Conflict! An evil dictator (negative element) is performing a ballet with the world (positive element) creating the third idea of “Hitler wants the whole world in his hands. He wants to become emperor of the world.”
As a filmmaker, when you are writing or directing a scene, ask yourself: What is the idea I’m trying to get across? How can I express that idea through conflict? What are my two conflicting elements/images? And then ask yourself the most important question: Is it best to represent this idea through conflict WITHIN THE CUT (Soviet Montage Theory) or WITHIN THE CONTENT (Chaplin)? One is not better than the other. The two can coexist in the same film.
For more writings on Soviet Montage Theory, read the following books: FILM FORM by Sergei Eisenstein, FILM SENSE by Sergei Eisenstein, KULESHOV ON FILM: THE WRITINGS OF LEV KULESHOV by Lev Kuleshov, FILM TECHNIQUE & FILM ACTING by V.I. Pudovkin, and KINO EYE: THE WRITINGS OF DZIGA VERTOV by Dziga Vertov.
For more on the idea of “content”, check out the cinema writings of André Bazin, one of the founders of French film magazine “Cahiers du cinema” in 1951. He preferred what he referred to as “true continuity” through mise en scène over experiments in editing and visual effects. And wouldn’t you know it… he championed both Charlie Chaplin and Vittorio De Sica!