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Archive for August 2011

Are Hollywood Movies (Mostly) Conservative?

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The image above is meant to represent the circle of life. It’s an image of a journey ending where it began. It’s an image of things staying the same. Hollywood movies work just like this because Hollywood movies are conservative.

Here’s the common story: we begin with a family, a town. Everything’s fine. Then along come the bad guys, or bad event. The hero’s task is to set things right again. The hero usually fights for survival or freedom, sometimes both. The story ends with things are returned to they way they were before the bad thing happened. That’s conservative: the status quo is maintained.

Star Wars? It’s about rebels fighting to restore the Republic, not create something that’s never existed before.

Robin Hood (pick your version)? Despite the apparent revolutionary aspects of the story, it’s really a fight to restore the rightful king, King Richard, to the throne. Once the former king is back in his castle, Robin Hood is ready to retire. Once again, all is right with the world.

Finding Nemo? Father and son are separated to start the story; father and son are reunited to end the story. We’re back where we started.

Red Dawn. Soviets invade the USA; patriots fight back and take back America!

The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy travels to Oz, but ends up back in Kansas, happy as a cucumber.

Around the World in 80 Days. Phileas Fogg and friends make a complete circuit around the Earth to end up where they started. This is the image of most films: going around in circles.

Sometimes things change so badly that nothing can restore them, and this is what revenge is for. Even though the loved ones cannot be brought back to life (usually), the hero’s revenge restores a sense of balance in the world.

Examples? There are many. Death Wish, Dirty Harry, or…

How about the new Conan the Barbarian: “The story boils down to Conan trying to avenge his father’s death while his adversary tries to magically resurrect his slain wife….” (Source.) I like the part about resurrecting the dead wife. It’s almost always about trying to get back something that’s been lost. The hero tries to return to the way things were, either literally, or through revenge. As if revenge can truly restore anything.

One more: Vertigo. Remember that one? It’s resurrection time again, and it’s not even a fantasy film! Too bad it doesn’t work out for Jimmy/Scotty.

The majority of Hollywood films do not like change. They tell stories about heroes who fight to restore things to the way they were before the Bad thing happened and change occurred. These films are about maintaining the status quo, about heroes who long for the return of the original status quo. The paradox is that these films show heroes who are active and in conflict, but this activity and conflict in almost always in the service of maintaining the world as it is. If they are fighting for change, it is a change that will return the world to what it was. And this world that they fight for is a world similar to our own world. Yes, there usually is some token change, but it’s usually minor and it comes off as a change that must be accepted by the hero as part of the maturation process and as part of the way the world just is.

Disney called it the circle of life.

UPDATE: 9/22/11

Dan Harmon’s circle that represents the eight steps of a story

As described in an article at Wired Magazine here, Dan Harmon, creator of the NBC sitcom Community, uses a circle to represent the eight steps of a good story. It’s a variation of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey and Chris Vogler’s Writer’s Journey, both of which have been popular in screenwriting classes for many years. I could have used Harmon’s circle to illustrate the post above about the conservative structure of many Hollywood stories. However, Harmon’s 8th step is a bit problematic, especially when applied to something as conservative as the sitcom where characters and situation almost by definition cannot change from week to week. Harmon’s circle image suggests a lack of change, with the end reflecting the beginning. Yet, there’s step 8: “Having changed.” To represent change, a better image might be a spiral: everything still goes around and around, but the end does not simply link back up with the beginning because things have truly changed.

Spirals doodle by Community writer Megan Ganz. Click on it to see her tumblr.

So why did Harmon settle on the circle? Perhaps because, despite his step 8, he intuited that there is no true change in the typical Hollywood story.


Harmon’s last step is “Having Changed.” This requires us, the viewers, to forget that characters are not real and therefore cannot change. But what if we don’t forget? We must realize, of course, that it’s the author, Harmon himself, who is creating the change, indeed, forcing it on his characters. Does this mean that we, the viewers, are we the real targets of the “Having Changed” step? Is the story supposed to be a moral lesson for us? This makes entertainment something like sugar coated schooling. Is that why we watch these shows? Or do we just ignore the “Having Changed” and focus on something else? Of course, the lesson learned by the character is usually something simplistic that we are assumed to already know and therefore we are made to feel superior to the character who did not apparently know and therefore has to change. So: do we watch to feel superior for a brief moment?

UPDATE 1/15/12

In The Power of Film, Howard Suber says something similar to what I said above:

As tends to be true for all popular arts, the vast majority of films and their protagonists are inherently conservative.  (The Power of Film, p. 96.)

Villains often want to change society, but it is invariably for their personal benefit. Heroes either want to keep society the way it is or restore it to what it once was. In this sense, villains are inherently radical and heroes are inherently conservative. (The Power of Film, p. 395.)

In other words, radicals are the villains and conservatives the heroes in Hollywood movies. And by definition, the film’s sympathies lie with the hero. This does not exactly fit Conservatives’ image of Hollywood, does it?

Written by pronountrouble2

August 20, 2011 at 1:30 am

Should Movies be Taken on Their Own Terms?

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Here’s an excerpt from Leonard Maltin’s blog review of the new Conan the Barbarian:

I try to take each movie I see on its own terms; this isn’t my favorite kind of entertainment, and some of its violence is extreme, but on the whole Conan the Barbarian is pretty good, for what it is. (Source.)

This is a common sentiment. But does it makes sense? Should a movie be taken on its own terms? What exactly does that mean?

Let’s take this sentiment to its extreme application. You probably already know what I am thinking: should Hitler have been taken on his own terms? If Germany had won the war, and the Third Reich was still going strong, would that have made Hitler right. On his own terms, it would have.

Why should a movie be any different? Why should the movie dictate the terms by which it is judged? If every move sought nothing more than to make a five year old laugh, must we say, “Judged on its own terms, which I must do to be fair to the movie, it is a roaring success.” Case closed. This means we are doomed because nowadays nothing a critic says matters all that much in any case. It’s irrelevant if a critic has a means of judging a film’s quality independent of the movie’s own terms, because the real judge of a movie’s value nowadays is, of course, its box office. If a lot of people pay to see a movie, it must be good, right?

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August 19, 2011 at 7:30 am

My Favorite Comic Books

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My list of top ten comics was rejected by The Hooded Utilitarian for their recent poll of comics creators and critics, asking them to list their top ten favorite comics. Their poll result is here, but my list is below. Despite being rejected, it’s interesting to me to see how many of my faves were mentioned by those who were invited to participate. I also thought it interesting that even the top vote getter, Peanuts, received only 24% of the vote (50/211). Is that enough to claim that there is a consensus for this list of best comics? I don’t think so. All that you can say is that the largest minority grouping thinks Peanuts is tops. But the much larger majority (76% of the vote) disagrees. The headline should refer not to Peanuts being number one, but to the fact that there was no agreement about which title should occupy the number one slot.

Anyway, here’s my list. The one I submitted was limited to ten titles, but I’m not bothering to meet that limit here.

There are always more comics to add to my library. My want list is here.

Yellow Submarine Promo

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Here’s a contemporary promo for Yellow Submarine, one of my favorite films. It’s hilariously pretentious (“From a script described as an open-end Rorschach filled with Joycean puns;” “Just as Swift and Carroll changed the history of literature, as Chagall and Picasso brought new life to art, The Beatles are revitalizing the art of animation,”) but it’s nevertheless interesting for the audio-only clips of director George Dunning and art director Heinz Edelmann (at least it seems to be them).

Note that the promo lasts only about 7 minutes. The rest of the clip’s time is taken up by Yellow Submarine‘s trailer.

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August 19, 2011 at 6:02 am


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August 18, 2011 at 8:31 pm

Are Screenwriters as Important as They Think?

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Hollywood screenwriters are up in arms! (See video above.) They have declared war on Disney and, in particular, Disney executive Andy Hendrickson who, according to an article in Variety, said, “People say ‘It’s all about the story.’ When you’re making tentpole films, bullshit.” He said that for a film such as the Tim Burton directed/Disney produced Alice in Wonderland, which made a truckload of money (hence it’s a tentpole movie), “The story isn’t very good, but the visual spectacle brought people in droves.”

I agree with Andy Hendrickson. I’ve already written a piece in which I stated my position on the subject of the screenplay and the plot. In short, I think that the plot is vastly overrated. It should be seen as merely one possibility among many for organizing scenes, spectacles, acts, just like Ed Sullivan united the acts on his show, or the Ring Leader unites the acts in a Three Ring Circus.  The more a writer insists that these disparate elements be united in more and more obvious ways, the more acts you leave out of the show, and the weaker your show will end up being. The weaker your plot, the more diverse the acts the plot will allow under the tent. It’s no accident that movie executives call certain kinds of movies tentpoles, an image that derives from the circus.

Plot and character are like the string in a necklace, and the elements of a film, the actors, characters, scenes, actions, dialogue, are the jewels on the string. If your string is more like a rope, it will overpower the jewels. Each jewel in a film should be relatively autonomous. If you are an agent booking a variety show, you should not plan on telling what each act should do. But this is what the screenwriting books by writers such as Syd Field and Robert McKee teach us.

Look at some of the earliest long form stories in the Western cannon. Such as The Odyssey. Such as The Divine Comedy. They are exactly what I am talking about: a series of scenes connected by character and the frame of a journey. The scenes can be anything. There’s nothing that says that Odysseus must meet the Cyclops or Circe. There’s nothing that says that Odysseus’ journey home must last 10 years or 100 years. Dante’s trip through Hell could last into infinity. Odysseus could become the eternal wanderer and his adventures could go on forever. The limit is really what the audience for the story is expecting.

Likewise, neither Odysseus nor Dante are necessary elements of these stories. Both The Odyssey and Divine Comedy could be done as travelogues with a narrator addressing the audience directly as each new land in the Mediterranean or station of Hell is approached. It could be done in the manner of Tex Avery’s “The Isle of Pingo Pongo,” a series of gags united by the frame of a travelogue spoof (WARNING: racist stereotypes):

So characters are not necessary to make a good film. How about plot? Here’s a definition often used in screenplay manuals:

a narrative structure that divides a story into five parts, like the five acts of a play. These parts are: exposition (of the situation); rising action (through conflict); climax (or turning point); falling action; and resolution.

This definition assumes the presence of characters. But if characters are not necessary, then neither is plot. I submit that the plot, like the character, is best seen as a device to organize the various elements of a film, the film’s package. The less emphasis that is put on it, the better off the elements in the package will be. What do people remember best about a film? Is it the plot? Or is it a scene? A moment? Such as: Psycho‘s shower scene, the car chase in The French Connection, the spaceship landing in Close Encounters, King Kong fighting off the planes, Indiana Jones running from the boulder, the Death Star blowing up, Jack Nicholson trying to order toast in Five Easy Pieces, the walk in The Wild Bunch, the presentation of Simba to all the animals at the start of The Lion King, Charlie Chaplin doing the roll dance in The Gold Rush), a line of dialogue (“Rosebud,” “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” “You’ll need a bigger boat,” “You talkin’ to me?”, Danny Kaye trying to remember if the pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle in The Court Jester.

If I’m wrong and people remember plots more than they remember moments, then why is the film, “Precious Images,” so powerful?

Why are there so many clips from movies on Youtube? It’s not because Youtube doesn’t allow full movies to be uploaded. It’s because moments and scenes from movies stand on their own and are usually the highlight of the movie they are from. They do not need a plot to support them. In many cases, the plot only serves to dilute their impact. Hollywood knew this years ago when it produced compilation films such as That’s Entertainment, which includes scenes from musicals, and before that, compilations such as When Comedy Was King, made from silent movies. Youtube merely continues this tradition.

What’s the story in this clip? There is none. It’s united by music, actors, and theme.  It’s complete, as is.

I’m looking at the list of top Domestic Grosses adjusted for ticket price inflation. There are several Disney movies on this list. I grew up watching clips from Disney on television before I saw most of the films. Clips from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (#10 on the list), 101 Dalmations (1961) (#11), Fantasia (#21), Mary Poppins (#24), The Lion King (#25), Sleeping Beauty (#30), Pinocchio (#38), Lady and the Tramp (#68). Each of the scenes that I saw on television stood on its own. It did not need the support of a plot. The film on the list with the weakest plot is Fantasia. In fact, there is no “plot.” Some individual sequences have something of a story, but each sequence is completely separate, and the film as a whole does not have a unifying plot. What unity the film does have, other than unity you get by bringing the sequences together under one name, Fantasia, is provided by the idea or theme (illustrations of classical music) and Deems Taylor. Compilation films often attempt to unite the separate sequences with a framing device that involves a group of characters, each telling a story. Examples: Dead of Night and Tales from the Crypt. Fantasia shows that such a framing device is totally unnecessary. But my point is this: when you allow the plot to weaken, and allow each element of a film to be relatively autonomous, you unleash the full potential of each scene, sequence, element of the film.

Let’s embrace the freedom of a jazz improviser who treats the given musical theme merely as a take-off point. The only limitations are the talent and imagination of the artist.

Here’s an example of jazz improvisation by Norman Mclaren using the drawing direct on film technique. If you skip ahead to the 45 second mark you will begin where the film really begins.

So, Disney exec Andy Hendrickson is correct, but what he said applies to more than just tentpole movies. Plot should be treated as a supporting character, and not as the film’s headliner. This enables greater variety when casting your show. However, screenwriters should put down their weapons and return to their word processors. Someone still has to write this stuff.

Ed Sullivan did not worry about plot.


Georges Méliès

Georges Méliès agrees with Andy Hendrickson:

For Méliès the scenario had little importance. He preferred to invent details first of all, out of which a final narrative developed. He liked to include a few tricks–“one trick leads to another,” he once said–then one principal grandiose effect and a final apotheosis. “You could say that the scenario is in this case simply a thread intended to link the ‘effects,’ in themselves without much relation to each other. I mean to say that the scenario has no more than a secondary importance in this genre of composition… I was appealing to the spectator’s eyes alone, trying to charm and intrigue him, hence the scenario was of no importance.” One is reminded of Nevil Maskelyne’s words on magical items: “beads held together and supported by the thread of dramatic interest.” These ‘effects,’ or ‘beads’–tricks, sets, costumes and props–were hastily scribbled down on any available bit of paper. (From Marvellous Méliès by Paul Hammond; p. 57)

Will Martin Scorsese’s homage to Méliès, Hugo (based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick), honor this aspect of the pioneering filmmaker’s art? We will know soon enough, but my bets are being placed against.

The Wage Slave’s Glossary

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This is the cover of a new book coming out in which one of the authors says:

This little philosophical book, which is also wittily illustrated by Seth, again tackles such phenomena as work, labor, leisure, freedom, and the good life. Instead of singing the praises of idling, this time around we criticize and analyze what the Lowell Mill Girls were the first to name wage slavery, not to mention what Mark calls the work idea itself. Putting down our Gimlets, we train a gimlet eye upon the ideology of working (as reflected in, e.g., management trends, white-collar culture, the history of industrial capitalism, and popular music) which helps make our screwed-up social order appear natural, inevitable, and eternal.

Not sure if this is a book that will leave you laughing or a book with a sober face, or a little of both, but there it is. Learn more about it here.

However, I’m using this book primarily as an excuse to post one of my favorite clips, from the first Marx Brothers film The Cocoanuts:

I haven’t read the book, but nevertheless, the meaning of the term “wage slavery”  is not lost on me. Why do we become wage-slaves? Back in Roman Empire times 90% of the population were engaged in providing the necessities of life while 10% were free to do what they wanted. Today, a mere 5% of the population does the work of those 90% back in Roman times, yet, we probably work as much as that 90%. Why? First of all, our system requires us to work to get the money we need to buy the necessities of life. Yet, how many of us stop working after we have provided for our necessities? Indeed, what would happen to our economic system if we stopped buying things that we don’t need? What if we recycled and repaired things instead of throwing them out and replacing them with something new? What if we ran our cars into the ground before buying the latest and greatest model?

Answer? The system would collapse. Our system depends on redundancies and waste. Do any of us purposely create more work for ourselves in our households? Not unless we are seriously insane. Yet, that is precisely what our economy depends on. We are put in the position of opposing the machine that does our job because, thanks to our system, the machine that replaces us means joblessness and poverty instead of more free time to do what we please.

How did we get stuck with such an absurd state of affairs?

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August 17, 2011 at 10:39 am