A Monster Calls: A Perfect Illustration Of Why We Tell Stories.

 

This article can be found in its entirety HERE.  

 

“It begins like so many stories with a boy too old to be a kid, too young to be a man… and a nightmare.”   — The Monster

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This analysis of the film contains spoilers which may differ from the book.

Early into Juan Antonio Bayona’s film adaptation of the Patrick Ness children’s fantasy A Monster Calls, twelve-year-old Conor watches with dismayed confusion as Kong, in the original 1933 black and white classic King Kong, is riddled with bullets, questioning why anyone would try to kill him.  As Kong clings atop the Empire State Building, he falters, ultimately letting go and falling to his inevitable death.  The scene resonates a negative undercurrent within Conor, mirroring his own nightmare where, upon the cemetery grounds opening up, he’s left clinging to his mother’s hand, eventually watching in horror as he’s unable to hold on.

Prior to this moment, the scene begins as Conor’s mother, simply known as “Mum” here on out, wishes to surprise him with his grandfather’s old film projector.  “I wish you could have known him,” she says, adding “even Grandma softened up around him.”  This bit of dialogue succinctly sets up the strenuous relationship between Conor and his grandmother but also illuminates the relationship between Mum and her father whose spirit hovers over the story in more ways than one; although his fate is never addressed, bits and pieces of backstory are threaded throughout, including photos of Liam Neeson who voices the titular character with Conor’s young Mum, suggesting the film’s plotline is one that this family, particularly Mum herself, has had to endure before.

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The Power of The One: Schindler’s List and The Little Girl in Red

 

This article can be found in its entirety HERE.  

 

“If I look at the mass, I will never act.  If I look at the one, I will.”  – Mother Teresa

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Sitting horseback atop a hill overlooking the Cracow ghetto, Oscar Schindler watches the Nazis mass-murder Jews when, amongst the massive atrocities, a little girl wearing a red coat catches his attention.  He watches as the little girl first follows other Jews in line, then seemingly walks aimlessly about, passing no less than seven pointblank shootings without so much as a flinch before slipping unnoticed into a building while gunfire continues to echo throughout.  She is but one amongst hundreds in the scene, yet her individuality, her specificity, humanizes the otherwise countless atrocities Schindler witnesses and she ultimately becomes the impetus for his change from German industrial businessman to sympathizer who spent his fortune to save over 1,000 Jews.

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In the book Connection: Hollywood Storytelling meets Critical Thinking, Randy Olson touches upon two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas Kristof’s article “Nicholas Kristof’s Advice for Saving the World” and its examination of the power of specifics when it comes to storytelling:


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Going deep inside the underbelly of Sicario.

 

This article can be found in its entirety HERE.  

 

“Nothing will make sense to your American ears and you will doubt everything we will do. But in the end, you will understand.” – Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro in Sicario.

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The opening sequence of Denis Villeneuve’s thriller Sicario serves as a precursor of things to come as idealistic, by-the-books FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) finds herself in something entirely different than expected when storming a compound supposedly holding hostages.  After a brief shootout, Kate and her colleague Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) find bodies – 42 to be exact – hidden inside the complex’s walls, but it’s an explosion that claims the lives of fellow agents which sets her down a path as a volunteer with the peculiar Department of Defense contractor Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and the even more mysterious former prosecutor from Columbia, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), in their quest to “dramatically overreact,” shake the trees and create chaos in an effort to get the man at the top.  Little does Kate realize the trip down that particular rabbit hole will be equally unexpected… and cost her dearly when the approach ultimately presents the moral dilemma of whether the means justify the end.

One of the things immediately apparent with Sicario is its exemplary structure whereas the main character is separated from the typical protagonist function.  As discussed in a previous article, the main character serves as the perspective the audience sees the story through whereas the protagonist drives the plot – a concept many still seem in the dark about. Here the audience identifies strongly with Kate because we know just as much as she does when she does, as the truth is slowly revealed. We are in her shoes and experience the story vicariously through her vantage point as part of the story’s design.

 


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A Look Inside the storytelling of Pixar’s Inside Out.

 

This article can be found in its entirety HERE.

 

“Feelings or emotions are the universal language and are to be honored.  They are the authentic expression of who you are at your deepest place.”  – Judith Wright

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The stars of 11-year old Riley’s inner journey.

WARNING: Spoilers ahead! 

Leave it to the storytelling gurus behind Pixar Animation Studio to come up with a relatively simple, high concept story dealing with a complex subject, yet wrapped in a context that is both easily understood in its universalness while appealing to the young and old alike. Accomplishing this is no easy feat, but the folks at Pixar know perhaps better than any other studio the power of a thematically rich narrative.

Theme, after all, is often thought of as “the heart” of a story, what it’s really about.  The heart therefore represents that inner journey whereas the plot (events) are typically external to the character, but Inside Out twists this notion and makes the inner (emotional) journey part of the plot while emotions themselves are characters who learn and influence one another, resulting in change that ultimately reveals a universal truth.  As Lisa Cron wrote in her book Wired For Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence:

“Since theme is the underlying point the narrative makes about the human experience, it’s also where the universal lies.  The universal is a feeling, emotion, or truth that resonates with us all.”


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The Babadook: when allegory meets expressionism in a therapeutic horror classic.

 

You can find this article in its entirety HERE.  

 

“I’ll wager with you.  I’ll make a bet.  The more you deny, the stronger I get.  You start to change when I get in, The Babadook growing right under your skin.  Oh come!  Come see what’s underneath!”  – Mister Babadook

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Warning: the following analysis includes spoilers!  

Early in writer/director Jennifer Kent’s Australian creeper The Babadook, widowed mother Amelia crawls onto the floor with her six year old son Samuel to check underneath his bed,  ensuring there are no monsters there before he turns in for the night.  The scene, repeated throughout the movie, has its roots in the seemingly every day life of a parent calming their child’s fears but also acts as one of the film’s many metaphors to dramatize the concept of “what lies beneath”.  Grounded in German expressionism, the film, like many great horror movies do, works on a psychological level as an allegory to convey the concept of suppression and repression, showing us the ill-effects – including cognitive dissonance – of what happens when emotions, particularly grief, have not been dealt with.

Before delving into the film further, let’s take a closer look at expressionism and allegory so we can understand how they fit into the bigger picture here.  Expressionism is at its bare essence taking the internal and making it external.  Expressionists seek to express meaning and emotional experiences – often radically to reflect mood and tone – rather than physical reality.  An allegory is used to convey complex ideas in ways that are more readily understood by an audience.  Its difference from a mere symbol is that an allegory, at least in story, is a narrative whose whole – much like a theme – has a meaning the author wishes to convey.  The use of these two together may explain why some viewers confessed to not understanding the movie (or its ending) – though to some extent, it’s a movie that’s aimed squarely at the real fears of an older audience – at least those old enough to have children of their own and suffered loss (for that’s what many of those who do will find relatable.)

We’ve found a new home!  You can read the rest of this article as well as others HERE.  

 

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Two elements each of these seminal horror movies since 1960 have in common, Part II.

 

You can find this article in its entirety HERE.  

 

“I think of horror films as art, as films of confrontation. Films that make you confront aspects of your own life that are difficult to face.”  – Wes Craven 

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Norman has a little bit of his mother in him.

Part one of this article can be found here.

As far back as 1908’s first known film adaptation of Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (no longer in existence) and 1919’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, horror movies have found the psychological explorations of “identity” to be effective proving grounds for stories that unsettle the mind.  It is, after all, the major component of the self; whether attributed to a character in a story in terms of perspective, ideologies, beliefs and experiences, or the individual watching the film whose own experiences, perspectives and beliefs may be preyed upon by the storyteller manipulating their greatest fears.

The marriage of the two (character and observer) through the main character’s perspective can enhance the emotional impact by placing viewers in the shoe’s of another – something that many will attest to be one of the important virtues of storytelling: to safely experience predicaments of others without being directly exposed to them?  Why?  As Lisa Cron explains in Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Your Readers from the Very First Sentence 

Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution—more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to. Story is what enabled us to imagine what might happen in the future, and so prepare for it— a feat no other species can lay claim to, opposable thumbs or not. Story is what makes us human, not just metaphorically but literally. Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience reveal that our brain is hardwired to respond to story; the pleasure we derive from a tale well told is nature’s way of seducing us into paying attention to it.


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Two elements each of these seminal horror movies since 1960 have in common, Part I.

 

You can find this article in its entirety HERE.  

 

“Horror stories give us a way of exhausting our emotions around social issues, like a woman’s right to an abortion, which I always thought was the core of ‘Rosemary’s Baby,’ or the backlash against feminism which I always thought was the core to ‘Stepford Wives.’ ” – Chuck Palahniuk

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As the Sawyers would later say, “The saw is family.”

Here’s a list of ten of the most influential and critically acclaimed horror films released since 1960.  Take a look and see if there are any noticeable commonalities.

Psycho (1960)

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

The Exorcist (1973)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Carrie (1976)

The Omen (1976)

Halloween (1978)

The Shining (1980)

Scream (1996)

There are many more that can be added to the list, some of which may contain one of the elements about to be discussed (films like The Thing (1982), Poltergeist (1982), The Fly (1986) along with films that may have been spawned by these such as the Friday the 13th series, not to mention the numerous sequels and many other, arguably lesser films of the genre), but for the sake of talking points we’ll keep the discussion to this list.


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Keeping your audience in suspense: cognitive dissonance, narrative blurring and the horror film.

 

 

You can find this article in its entirety HERE

 

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” – H.P. Lovecraft

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Is that really a ghost on the shore in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, an adaptation of Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, or is it merely all in Miss Giddens’ head?

There’s something about settling down in the dark of night to watch a well done creeper-feature, the kind that builds its atmosphere in layers like thick fog that keeps one guessing as to what’s really going on.  As discussed here, much of a film’s success is dependent on the main character’s perspective on events unfolding with regards to how an audience is to interpret them.  As such – and particularly in horror – the main character’s perspective is increasingly important when fostering suspense, an element that drives uncertainty, anxiety and indecision in a prolonged sense of “what happens next?”.  But for that perspective to be effective and create the kind of suspense in the audience that will keep them on the edge of their seats, two approaches are most useful: creating cognitive dissonance and narrative blurring.

Merriam Webster defines cognitive dissonance as “psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously.”  Furthermore:

[it’s] mental conflict that occurs when beliefs or assumptions are contradicted by new information. The concept was introduced by the psychologist Leon Festinger (1919–89) in the late 1950s. He and later researchers showed that, when confronted with challenging new information, most people seek to preserve their current understanding of the world by rejecting, explaining away, or avoiding the new information or by convincing themselves that no conflict really exists. Cognitive dissonance is nonetheless considered an explanation for attitude change.


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Analyzing the farce and its reliance on character perspective

“Comedy is unusual people in real situations; farce is real people in unusual situations”

 -Chuck Jones

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Some may argue whether Tootsie is a farce vs a situational comedy. Sydney Pollack himself stated they downplayed the exaggeration found with some farcical elements, but at its heart – a farce is a farce is a farce – and Tootsie has many of the elements in play, particularly coincidences and choreography.

Farce is one of the most difficult, challenging forms of writing.  Perhaps more than any other genre, it relies on the writer’s complete understanding of many of the things discussed here in previous posts, from the author’s Machiavellianism to its inherent use of dramatic irony, to its most essential ingredient, perspective, all used to great effect.  It is, however, also one of the more misunderstood forms of writing from the reader’s perspective.  With an emphasis by some readers on traditional story structure, there’s a tendency to completely miss a farce’s raison d’être centering not on the goal of the story itself, but the rising complications stemming from it.  Coupled with other inherent elements not always en vogue (a large cast, typically longer set-up and deliberate use of coincidences among others), the farce can seem almost counterculturist in some story analyst’s eyes – but lacking in structure it is not.

So what exactly is a farce and how does it differ from other forms of comedy?  On the stage, it’s a genre that is full of high-energy and very physical stage directions, often “choreographed” – something that still translates to film though perhaps less obvious because of editing.  Typically, the plot of a farce is a series of highly improbably events or coincidences that has a tendency to become incomprehensible due to the many twists and turns.  The characters are often, but not always, larger than life and the humor is derived from mistaken identities or misunderstandings resulting in deliberate absurdity or nonsense.  Farces often take place in a singular location with a large cast, too, but it’s not a necessity.  In farce, anything goes – which typically means any and all types of comedy are utilized to fulfill the story’s main objective: keep the audience laughing...but the trick is, like a five course meal for ten, everything has to be prepared and precisely set up.

As for how it differs from other comedies, writer Ken Levine states, with some irony:

I recently was asked how we constructed farces on CHEERS and FRASIER. I’m sure fifty different comedy writers would give you fifty different approaches but this is mine.

First off there must be jeopardy. Something the characters need very badly and are willing to go to the greatest lengths to achieve. The situation can be totally absurd to us but to the characters themselves they’re very real. In fact, the greater the jeopardy the crazier they can act.

Secondly, a farce is built on a lie. A character lies and then to keep from getting caught must lie again. The lies multiply, the character digs himself into a deeper hole. And generally, there are several characters forced to lie. Often the lies contradict each other.

Needless to say, this takes careful planning. The structure of a farce is critical. Things have to happen with exact precision. The pressure must never let up. Constant roadblocks must be introduced. Complications on top of more complications. The vice tightens…and tightens…and tightens.

These are but a few of the reasons why an unsuspecting reader walking into a farce is more likely to be overly critical of the writing – especially in this day and age when many scripts aren’t read beyond ten pages, certainly twenty if the writing itself doesn’t conform to some specific prerequisites they may have – and doubly so if the unsuspecting reader doesn’t know what a farce actually is and how it deviates from traditional storytelling.

What Ken describes sounds like it should pertain to any form of storytelling, but a farce – which means to literally stuff – takes a certain amount of set-up in motion pictures where audiences normally don’t have the benefit of already knowing characters and relationships as they would with television sitcoms.  As such, where another story may develop several key characters and their relationships, a farce does it to a much greater extent and cast – like a juggler tossing a dozen balls in the air as opposed to three.  Dare I say a script such as Some Like it Hot, as classic a farce to ever exist, would be taken to task being read beyond its first twenty pages in today’s climate because its set-up takes nearly twenty-five minutes before Joe/Jerry, in their attempt to elude the mob and play into the story’s conceit, become Josephine/Daphne (not to mention the stark difference in its tone.)

Furthermore, the goal, eluding the mob, becomes completely lost for the majority of the remaining story, the subsequent complications resulting in Joe and Jerry’s chosen methodology – dressing as female musicians – leading to more and more based on the growing cast and their respective perspectives and individual goals.  The same rising complications from both Tootsie and Arsenic and Old Lace also prove the story’s ultimate goal elusive: in any given scene one can get lost in what the actual story is about, what the goal is, and who’s actually pursuing what (as demonstrated in this scene from Some Like it Hot.)

In Tootsie, rarely are we reminded of Michael Dorsey’s attempt to raise $8,000 to star in and produce his roommate Jeff’s off-Broadway play.  We understand the motivation because it’s brilliantly conveyed with Michael’s perspective on acting in the opening credits, but once Michael becomes Dorothy, it’s ALL about the complications stemming from the web of character relationships to both Michael/Dorothy.  Michael is, in fact, earning that money as Dorothy but with each new character introduced – and there are MANY – comes a complication to the means of that end (and eventually the end itself.)  Michael ends up pursuing a relationship with Julie and when he’s not doing that, he’s avoiding all the complications his prior decisions have caused.  When it all becomes too much, he ultimately pursues a way out – a way back to “normal,” essentially having accomplished his original goal once he became Dorothy and earned a paycheck.  

This is where farce becomes inherently different from other forms of storytelling where characters exist as archetypes and/or functions of the theme and what an author is trying to convey. In farce, a character’s existence is to provide complications via their relationship to the main character – something that needs to be set up by their differing perspectives.

Julie:  Michael’s romantic interest, but also Dorothy’s co-star, she doesn’t take to him and his pickup lines but thinks warmly of Dorothy.  Complicating matters, she’s Ron’s love interest which provides a bit of a mirror to the Michael/Sandy relationship.  Julie’s perspective can be summed up in her scene with Dorothy where she confides being a woman in the 80’s is complicated with all the pretenses and that a little honesty would go a long way (of course, how it comes out is a bit different and results in Michael later getting slapped when he tries the direct approach.)

Sandy: Michael’s friend who he feigns romantic interest with as a result of a complication.  Michael convinces her to try out for the part of the hospital administrator on the soap opera, a role that Michael lands himself…as Dorothy.  Sandy subsequently dislikes “Dorothy”.  Complicating matters further, she really wants to believe in Michael’s interest for her, but it’s hard to after seeing a “fat woman,” Michael dressed as Dorothy, in Michael’s apartment.  Sandy’s perspective, particularly when it comes to relationships, is defined after she has sex with Michael and says “Sex changes things.  I mean I’ve had relationships where I know a guy and I have sex with him and then I bump into him someplace and he acts like I loaned him money.”

Ron: The show’s womanizing director who’s using Julie, who, as noted, is Michael’s romantic interest.  Naturally Michael as Dorothy takes exception, leading to an ideology of feminism in the workplace as Michael’s aggressive style as Dorothy is seen as empowering to woman. Psychologically, Ron is an extension of Michael who begins to see how he treats women himself as a result of the way Ron treats both Julie and Dorothy.  Ron’s perspective can be summed up in one word: the title, “Tootsie”.

Les: Julie’s father who’s romantic interest is…Dorothy.  Michael, believing he’s going to spend a weekend with Julie (as Dorothy), ends up being courted by Les. When Michael, as Dorothy, makes an inopportune pass at Julie, she mistakes her for being a lesbian and pleads with her to tell Les the truth.  Les’s perspective is “Bulls are bulls and roosters don’t try to lay eggs,” a layer of irony added considering the situation.

John Van Horn: The soap’s other slightly less overt womanizer who’s managed to kiss all the women on the show…and also in pursuit of Dorothy.  Thank goodness for Jeff’s impeccable timing.  John’s perspective is, well, it’s actually conveyed by what the other, real, female cast members refer to him as: “the tongue”.

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Spsh! Spsh! A disconcerting sound if there ever was one…well, if you’re a heterosexual male dressed in drag on set with the man known as “The Tongue”.

Jeff: Michael’s roommate who’s caught in the middle of Michael/Dorothy and having to placate Michael in his moments of crisis with both Sandy and John Van Horn. Jeff’s perspective is shown when he confronts Michael after the phone rings and he’s pleaded with to not answer it.  “You know, when you were playing Cyrano and you stuck a saber underneath my armpit through the couch, I didn’t say anything.  When you were hopping around, ranting about your hump, saying that this was a bell tower, I didn’t say anything.  But I don’t see any reason why I should just sit here, pretending I’m not home just because you’re not that kind of girl.  That’s weird.”

George Fields: Michael’s agent who, along with the audience and Jeff, are the only ones privy to the truth of what’s really going on.  It’s George’s perspective of Michael that segues the story into its spiraling complications when he says “Michael, you’re not going to raise twenty-five cents.  No one will hire you!”

Those are the primaries of a rather large cast, all of whom do nothing in terms of conventional storytelling to stop Michael from his goal, but rather complicate matters stemming from his decision to become Dorothy in the first place.  What makes this difficult for the writer to achieve is that those complications all stem from the various characters and their perspectives, each having their own belief system that impacts the way they interpret, or is often the case, misinterpret, the unfolding of events – and it’s here that we can probably come to one truth that often goes unrealized:

The key to “funny” isn’t necessarily what has happened on the screen; rather it’s what the characters think has happened.  

For this to work, the writer has to, in the farce’s particular case, invest in their character’s a bit deeper in order to set up the story and its rising complications.  I liken this to a slow, laborious tight winding of a top that takes both effort and time, the payoff being when you finally let it rip and watch it spin, bouncing off other objects and unsteady surfaces as we wonder how long can it go? (the “it” being our laughter in this metaphorical case.)  Perhaps no scene shows this to be truer than in Tootsie where all the various plot-lines come together upon Michael’s revelation during a live broadcast of the show, leaving one question unanswered: does Jeff know?

In Frank Capra’s savory black comedy adaptation of Arsenic and Old Lace, Mortimer Brewster marries sweetheart Elaine Harper despite his perspective that marriage is an “old fashion superstition.” His goal, to get on with honeymoon.  Providing complications are his insane murdering family whom he makes the mistake of stopping by and seeing.  Of course the audience is provided a different perspective, that from the policeman during his beat describing the Brewster sisters as “two of the dearest, sweetest, kindest old ladies that ever walked the earth.  They’re out of this world.  They’re like pressed rose leaves.”  But from Officer O’Hara’s perspective, they must be awfully hard up to have to rent a room.  Little does he know…

Much like Tootsie and Some Like it Hot, Arsenic and Old Lace‘s set-up in providing the story with a goal really amounts to little more than an excuse to cause all sorts of complications when Mortimer decides to break the news to his aunts before leaving for their honeymoon. There’s nothing at first other than Mortimer’s conscious that keeps him from going – until he finds a body hidden in his aunts’ window seats, shifting the focus to getting brother “Teddy Roosevelt” Brewster, who he believes responsible, consigned to a sanitarium.  But once brother Jonathan arrives, he who is also a murderer and looking to stash his own body, the focus shifts yet again as Mortimer is subsequently drawn deeper into the mounting complications stemming from a growing cast and, much like the other films, their own distinctive perspective, set of values and beliefs that tend to clash with one another.

As one might imagine, an uninformed reader sitting down to read a farce may find it confusing with so many characters to set up – something by today’s standards would leave many wondering “who is this story about?”  Furthering the complication from that perspective is the seemingly shifting nature of what the goal actually is and the farce’s tendency to follow its own course of story logic (it’s been said writers are allowed one coincidence per script…but farces are inherently dependent on them).  Sure, there’s still three (or four, depending on whom you ask) acts in many cases – Tootsie providing a strong argument for this overall structure, but the misperception of lack of structure stemming from pursuing a strong story goal comes from the preconceived notion that every story fits into some particular formula to begin with.  In that regard, it’s a bit silly to criticize a work that’s accomplished what it set out to deliberately do.

Simply put, pages have to be devoted to each of these characters and their identities which means laying out the beats for their motivations, desires, attitudes and beliefs which – as noted numerous times before – results in their world view/schema that, in turn, dictates their actions, reactions and behaviors, elements which make the reaction to a scene more important to the audience than the action (something discussed at  length here.)

As such, a writer is forced to build all this around some kind of framework or theme in the most expedient and efficient means possible.  Sydney Pollack once stated in an interview that the challenge with Tootsie was setting Michael alone up within the first eight minutes so that the audience believed he was not only a great actor capable of playing a woman, but unemployable as well.  With this and the notion we’re supposed to be laughing at what otherwise might as well be a tragedy to the characters themselves, the laughs tend to come fast as the writer attempts to pull all the right strings at the right time to keep the story moving along at a clip that continually introduces complications on top of complications – most stemming from the power of perspective – as the author does double duty, pulling the strings of both character and plot to a degree John Mortimer once stated farce as being “[a] tragedy played at a thousand revolutions per minute.”

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Setting as an extension of your main character’s mind.

“Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else.”  – Eudora Welty

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Her’s Theodore Twombley, feeling cold and lonely when his relationship with Samantha, the operating system he’s fallen in love with, takes an unexpected turn.

We as writers all know that setting is one of the main literary components to storytelling, providing a specific time and place to give the story itself some form of context.  It’s also well known that, in certain circumstances, the setting can become a character in and of itself – 12 rooms, 12 vacancies anybody?  In other cases, a story’s setting can provide a dichotomy of contrasts for rich exploration such as a troubled, but poor genius working as a janitor at one of the most prestigious technical institutes in the world who’s smarter than the professors teaching there (Good Will Hunting.)  But there’s another element to setting that often goes unnoticed – and subsequently unused – by many writers: setting as an extension of the main character’s mind, or more specifically, as a representation of their inner conflicts and struggles.

In a previous discussion regarding The Shawshank Redemption, it was discussed how the world of the story itself, the prison, is the context in which the theme is placed: finding hope in the most hopeless of situations.  The dark, cold place is a reflection of Red’s worldview with regard to the theme, but also a mirror to his personal problem of conformity.  By conforming to the system in an attempt at some form of self-preservation, Red has given up any semblance of his authentic-self.  He, in essence, has become a prisoner in both mind, body and spirit – problems that continue to not only exist, but magnify, once he’s plopped down into a different setting altogether: the free world.  As a result, the prison – albeit a very real setting – acts as a metaphor for something larger than just physical imprisonment that Red must overcome.

In every scene that there is a ray of light, of hope, metaphorically or otherwise, it’s due to Andy’s presence.  It’s these sepia-toned moments – and their settings, drinking suds on the rooftop or “missing one’s friend” that clash and contrast with the bleakness of the daily prison existence, heightening Red’s inner conflict between the safety of institutionalism he’s come to know vs. the uncertainty of freedom he’s come to admire through Andy:

 

Christopher Nolan took the notion of imprisonment and made it both figurative and literal in his mind-bending film Inception, trapping his main character Dom Cobb inside his own dreams.  Physically, Cobb is a prisoner in the sense that he’s barred from seeing his children in the United States because of a murder charge – but it’s much more complicated in that he’s also prisoner to his feelings of guilt and the role he played in his wife’s death which results in his subconscious having a big impact on the story’s numerous settings.  The clip where Cobb explains the machinations of the setting to Ariadne below  exemplifies the very nature of the setting as an extension of one’s mind:

 

The world Cobb and Mal created together in the past from shared memories has turned into a crumbling sea-side paradise in the present representing their state of decay in his mind as he’s built a prison of memories to keep her locked away in.  Ariadne questions this, asking Cobb if he truly believes it will contain her – the runaway train Mal and Cobb discussed in their dreams from their time in limbo repeatedly manifests itself in various settings as a reminder of Cobb’s internal struggle:

Cobb:         “You’re waiting for a train. A train that will take you far away. You know where you hope the train will take you, but you can’t be sure. Yet it doesn’t matter. Now, tell me why?

Mal:            “Because we’ll be together!

Interestingly enough, the movie – about dreams and memories – opens on a beach and features the deteriorating dreamworld on its shores, giving it not only a sense of time working on physical elements, but spiritual as well (and of course, “Time” is perhaps the most popular track from the Hans Zimmer soundtrack – something that’s also an important element to The Shawshank Redemption.)

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When we wound up on the shore of our own subconscious, we lost sight of what was real.  Limbo became her reality.

Going from limbo to permanently erasing one’s memories, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind also uses its settings to represent its main character’s state of mind – often to unique and hilarious effect – in a movie that seems almost the antithesis of Inception: whereas as Christopher Nolan’s film was about a team creating an idea by infiltrating someone’s dreams, Michel Gondry’s take on Charlie Kaufmann’s original screenplay somewhat inverts the notion by having a team specializing in erasing customer’s memories.  Of course things don’t go as planned and Joel Barrish attempts to hold onto at least one good memory of Clementine, the resulting story just as much a labyrinth of plot and character as Nolan’s Inception.

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There’s something about trains and beaches as a reoccurring motif in some of these movies. Here, Joel Barish’s voice over marries with the bleak February setting in his desire to connect with someone who’s at a distance. “It’s God damn freezing on this beach. Montauk in February. Brilliant, Joel!” If only he could meet someone new…

Opening with Joel heading to the beach in Montauk on a train after having his memories of Clementine erased, the setting is bleak and cold – kind of reminding one why Valentines Day falls in the middle of the grey beast known as February.  The journey compelled by his subconscious and last words of Clementine, “meet me in Montauk,” as he desperately tries to hold onto his remaining memories of her, Joel admits to being in a funk – but not knowing why.  The rest of the film examines how he and Clementine got to where they are in terms of their life together and apart, the setting becoming increasingly more important as it takes on physical attributes of Joel’s memory much like Cobb’s dream world did for him in Inception.

 

Even the smaller moments in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are filled with subtext via the setting.  In one particular scene early on, Clementine goads a wary Joel into having a “honeymoon on ice”.  Joel, trekking like a penguin out onto the ice, laments that he should go back, worried that the ice may break.  Clementine asks, “What if?  Do you really care right now?”  What we don’t realize yet is that Joel’s subconscious is impacting his present: the ice isn’t the only thing he’s worried about breaking and his reaction to the setting with Clementine is a result of having been in a relationship with her previously that left both erasing their memories of one another.

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“It’s not going to crack. Or break, or…it’s so thick.” Relationships often leave one feeling like they’re walking on thin ice…

Though not quite as cerebral in setting as Inception or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Spike Jonze’s Her is nevertheless firmly rooted in science fiction and uses its story world to help shape Theodore Twombly’s inner conflict as a writer struggling to move on after a failed marriage.  Set in a futuristic Los Angeles, the film was also filmed in Shanghai to give it a futuristic, if not altogether alienating feel that helped to establish Theodore’s loneliness.  Whereas a beach in the middle of February with two people at opposite ends of the frame connotes a feeling of disconnect, so too does a man in a stark red coat lost in his melancholy thoughts and flanked by couples.

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A city of high-rises and millions of people, yet no one to connect with.

Theodore is another example of a character imprisoned by his past, unable to let go and move on from his failed marriage. The story’s setting, particularly the technology and surroundings, help to convey the feeling of disconnect he has with others.  From playing video games by himself, calling into a char room service, or his work creating emotional cards for others, Theodore lives in a world that strangely seems to mirror our own with society’s increasingly reliance on technology for communication needs – and much to our own detriment.

Granted, the film’s story is not about technology per se, but about relationships and their inherently complex nature.  Theodore, through Samantha, experiences the ups and downs of a real relationship and the vulnerabilities that come with it (vulnerability being one of the key hurdles to Theodore’s inability to connect).  The story’s settings factor throughout his emotional journey: the sun-drenched scenes on the beach where he walks happily amongst the masses with Samantha in his pocket vs. the stark cold, snowy scene in the mountains when everything starts falling apart both serve as a reflection to what Theodore thinks and, perhaps more importantly, feels.  Despite how their relationship turns out, Theodore is able to grow from it and reconcile with his ex-wife and make an important connection by the end of the film.

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By film’s end, Theodore sits on higher ground with a better view of his world after having finally reached a level of awareness that allows him to be vulnerable and connect – or in this case reconnect – with another damaged soul.

Last but not least – and far removed from science fiction overtones – is Hal Ashby’s 1971 cult classic, black comedy Harold and Maude.  The main character, Harold, is a young man obsessed with death who falls for a 79 year old who’s equally obsessed with life.  Both share an odd passion for attending funerals, but for very different perspectives.  Harold’s infatuation with death causes him to enact any number of pseudo-suicides in an effort to obtain an emotional response from his socially affluent yet emotionally unavailable mother.  As we find out later in the film, it was Harold’s supposed death and bearing witness to his mother’s emotional reaction that seemingly gave him any sense of truly being loved, hence is “reenactments” to garner a similar reaction.

The setting for the film explores some of the counter-culture of its time, perhaps being one of the reasons it became the cult classic it is today.  As one might expect from a character obsessed with death, many of the film’s settings involve funerals and cemeteries – not to mention couch trips to the psychiatrist for Harold – all in an effort to help convey his inner sense of malaise.  Harold is, in essence, to The Shawshank Redemption‘s Red as Maude is to that film’s Andy Dufresne, a character imprisoned by his thoughts who’s drawn to another who provides a counterpoint.

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Though never explicitly referenced, one quick insert shot of Maude’s arm gives us all the information we need in order to understand her perspective. The tattoo itself provides a rich sense of backstory, of time and place – of setting – without the need to go into further details.

Through Maude, the film’s settings take a different context via her attitude, beliefs and actions – all of which Harold finds himself drawn to.  In one memorable scene rich with symbolism, the two discuss flowers and which kind they each would prefer to be.  The contrasting settings – along with their answers – allow us a peek inside each of the inner workings of their minds:

 

Just as Harold falls in love with Maude, she informs him of her intention to die – something briefly hinted at early on – leaving him crestfallen in an ending that’s very reminiscent both tonally and structurally to Her: as with Theodore’s learning to be human and vulnerable through Samantha, so to has Harold with Maude.  Both are faced to make a choice to learn from their painful experiences and losses and to move on – and of course both end up physically, and metaphorically “at a higher level” as a result, Harold peering over the cliff to his destroyed “Jaguearse” below on the shore of the ocean – the motif reappearing once again as a symbol for renewal.

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The last faux-suicide proves It’s better to be up there playing a banjo than down below, crashing amongst the waves.

In each of these instances, the films’ settings not only give its story a strong sense of time and place, but also a reflection and sense of the character’s inner struggles, too.  Some settings, such as those with Inception and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, are part of their story’s conceit as they take place directly in the mind itself.  Others, such as The Shawshank Redemption and Harold and Maude, use various settings in a more subtle ways through symbolism and subtext.

Whatever your setting may be for your own story, looking at it as an extension of your main character’s mind, perspective and inner conflict will enable you to more readily find those opportunities for subtext and symbolism, adding another level of richness to your story and making it a more cohesive work.  As Eudora Welty alluded to in the opening quote, make your settings count!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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