Tag: american beauty
Since December of 1999, every time I teach screenwriting at New York University and Drexel University I wrap up the semester with this article because it ages like a fine wine, every year getting better. It’s from the dawn of the new filmmaking millennium (right). Bracketed comments are mine.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY Cover Story, November 1999
1999: The Year That Changed Movies [audacious title, eh? let's see if they're right]
by Jeff Gordinier
You can stop waiting for the future of movies. It’s already here. Someday, 1999 will be etched on a microchip as the first real year of 21st century filmmaking. The year when all the old, boring rules about cinema started to crumble. The year when a new generation of directors — weaned on cyberspace and Cops, Pac-Man and Public Enemy — snatched the flickering torch from the aging rebels of the 1970s [people like Cassavetes, Scorsese, Coppola, et al]. The year when the whole concept of ”making a movie” got turned on its head. [really?]
Skeptical? [yes] Consider the evidence: The whirling cyberdelic Xanadu of The Matrix [traditional 3-act plot structure and familiar 'hero's journey' character arc]. The relentless, rapid-fire overload of Fight Club [3-act plot structure]. The muddy hyperrealism of The Blair Witch Project [ok, 1 point for Entertainment Weekly so far]. The freak show of Being John Malkovich [3-act plot structure]. The way time itself gets fractured and tossed around [you mean via traditional flashbacks and flash forwards?] in Run Lola Run [3-act plot structure]. The spooky necro-poetry of American Beauty [3-act plot structure] and The Sixth Sense [you mean with its traditional O. Henry ending and 3-act plot structure?]. The bratty iconoclasm of Dogma [okay, another point for EW]. The San Fernando Valley sprawl of this winter’s Magnolia [yes, they're also correct here].
”It’s like 1939,” marvels director Alexander Payne, whose dark satire Election [3-act plot structure] represents yet another escape from the fuddy-duddy format [no it doesn't]. ”There’s a bumper crop of movies that, even if they’re not perfect, are interesting and intelligent” [I agree, and they do indeed have unusual SUBJECT MATTER, but they are extremely traditional at the end of the day – often a white male protagonist, a clear antagonist, a precise 3-act plot structure].
Like Keanu Reeves’ hero in The Matrix (aptly named Neo), members of this new breed — backed by stars like Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis, and Cameron Diaz — are wondering whether the rules that have governed the silver screen for nearly a century amount to little more than an illusion. ”Hollywood narrative film is in its death throes right now [no it isn't] and people are looking for something else,” [no they aren't] declares R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, who produced Being John Malkovich [then why does it have a 3-act structure?].
The Matrix gobbled up $171 million at the ticket booth and has become a blockbuster [no surprise, it's a very traditionally told tale following a 3000 year old plot structure].
If the last wave of Hollywood rebels (Coppola, Scorsese, Rafelson) drew their creative sustenance from the global titans of the art house (Fellini, Truffaut, Kurosawa), the new brigade is just as likely to find Parnassus in a Game Boy [frankly I think that's insulting to the new generation of filmmakers]. Films of the new guard dart and weave; they reflect the cut-and-paste sensibility of videogames, the Internet, and hip-hop [it's true; we do live in fast times in terms of the moving image, but that's why they're called motion pictures].
These days, the jumble of data chunks may be the very meat of the story–the hallowed Beginning, Middle, and End. how to catch up to things really quickly. A lot of times you come into something halfway through and you have to think, ‘Well, why are Ross and Rachel fighting about this?’”
Which leads to The Blair Witch Project. A year ago, if you had told a studio suit that a murky, herky-jerky, starless $60,000 horror flick would wind up trouncing Tom Cruise at the summer box office, he’d have set you up on a blind date with Andy Dick. “I’m grateful for its existence,” says documentary director Bennett Miller, “because it reminded Hollywood that it doesn’t know everything.” [true; so did The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and many other films].
The key lesson: Kids are wired funny. [huh?] Blair Witch might’ve induced motion sickness in many a potbellied boomer, but it felt as cozy as a Pikachuplush toy to any tot raised on a steady diet of When Animals Attack. “Kids today are growing up with camcorders in their house,” says Aronofsky. “I’m sure a lot of kids run around their neighborhoods making horror films and stuff, and they saw something in Blair Witch that they could really connect to.” It’s no accident that Wes Bentley’s sensitive brooder in American Beauty had a camera permanently attached to his palm [yes,the one weird teen in the neighborhood; he is depicted as an oddball and a loner, not a typical "kid"].
If Fight Club and Being John Malkovich have anything in common (and from an aesthetic standpoint, they don’t), it’s a nagging impatience with the old way [not really; unusual subject matter, yes, but told in a very traditional manner]. Plenty of art forms–the novel, chamber music, painting–have gone through a series of stylistic earthquakes over the past century. Although Hollywood has absorbed creative shocks from the likes of John Cassavetes, Andy Warhol, Robert Altman, Jim Jarmusch, and David Lynch, the bedrock form of a mainstream movie has stayed pretty much the same [yes]. Agents and producers still preach the Gospel According to Syd Field; budding hacks clutch tattered copies of Field’s Screenplay and The Screenwriter’s Workbook, handy guides that boil down classics like Chinatown into the sort of paradigm charts you’d study in a Harvard Business School efficiency seminar [I'm guilty as charged]. Ever watch a movie and get the feeling that you know exactly what’s going to happen? [yes, in a bad movie; are you suggesting Chinatown was predictable? come on]. Well, you’re supposed to. A teacher and lecturer, Field isn’t famous for writing any landmark scripts of his own, just for telling Hollywood how to do it. [no, he’s just pointing out what the great movies have in common, not offering any kind of new narrative method he claims to have invented; guess what? Aristotle wasn’t known as a great playwright either when he wrote The Poetics; Field is just reiterating what’s been around for millennia; he’s just good at making the traditional structure understandable to novices; there’s nothing wrong with reading his books, it doesn’t make you a hack; go for it, kids]. ‘These movie-executive people and producers–bad producers–I think they’re aware of the silliness of Syd Field, and they like to think that they are breaking out of that mold,” [no they don't, they're terrified of breaking out of that mold] says Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas Anderson. “But all they are doing is propagating it.”
Hollywood’s never going to abandon the three-act structure–it’s been around since Aristotle’s mega-pic deal with DreamWorks–but it’s amazing to hear how many filmmakers are bored stiff with the dogma [really? which ones? 99% of the people you've mentioned here use it religiously]“. The whole school of Act 1/Act 2/Act 3 is destructive to a thriving, growing cinema,” says Election‘s Payne [THEN WHY DID YOU USE IT? This man is lying to you here. I love this movie but he's lying when he says it doesn't have a traditional 3-act structure; it's got it square on the nose, you can time it with your watch]. “I think that for the last 20 years American films have lived under ideological restrictions which are as stringent as–if not more stringent than–the restrictions on Eastern European films under Communism [talk to an Eastern European filmmaker sometime, this is ludicrous and insulting to people who would be sent to prison for making movies that the government didn't approve of; this is an absolutely moronic remark for him to make; he is a naive American fool]. You know, the hero has to triumph. The lovers have to reunite. The so-called liberal freethinkers running Hollywood are extremely conservative” [this is true; when it comes to money they are extremely conservative, they're very careful and usually avoid risks].
A lot [a lot? doubtful; more like a handful] of young directors just keep their eyes wide shut to the orthodoxy. “I’ve never read a screenwriting book,” Anderson says flatly. When he was composing the arc of Magnolia, Anderson borrowed a model from an unlikely source: the Beatles. “I had a really ridiculously ambitious and presumptuous goal: I looked to Sgt. Pepper and the White Album for inspiration,” he says. “I tried to structure my movie after ‘A Day in the Life,’ how it would sort of build build build build build build build [like the traditional obstacle-anxiety-relief cycle that I taught you during the second week of class?] –fall off a cliff [you mean a CLIFFhanger, i.e., a major reversal (from Aristotle's term "reversal of fortune") or Syd Field's plot point?] and then start building back up again. I took more structurally from that song than from any movie I’ve seen” [if you say so, but you're describing a very traditional way of storytelling].
A star can get an executive to snap to, but even that’s no guarantee when you’re making a movie that involves puppets, lesbian lust, and psychic portals. “It was a total fluke that this movie got made. It was a struggle up until the very end, even with this cast,” says Being John Malkovich‘s producer Sandy Stern. “There was a studio head who asked us, ‘Can it be Being Tom Cruise?’” Charlie Kaufman cranked out the script five years ago, but he still remembers the knee-jerk reactions from the Hugo Boss contingent: “‘This is very funny. This is the funniest thing we’ve ever read. This is too weird. This will never be made.’ That was the conventional wisdom” [I totally agree; I love this movie; I just hate the bullshit in this article, most of these people are really shoveling it here].
“Ten years ago, Being John Malkovich wouldn’t have been set up somewhere,” says Columbia’s Strauss.
“Even five years ago,” says Giannetti [I agree wholeheartedly; it's very cool that this movie got made, a rare thing for Hollywood].
Which suggests that five years from now, we might wind up getting lost in a forest of cruddy shaky-cam movies narrated by puppeteers and dead people [Was he right? Let’s flash forward to five years later — the 2005 the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay went to Million Dollar Baby, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Sideways, respectively, all of which have a traditional 3-act structure. The 2005 so-called “Independent” Spirit Award winners for Best Feature, Best Director and Best Screenplay went to Sideways, Sideways and Sideways, respectively, meaning 1999′s supposed iconoclasts with any staying power were only Alexander Payne and Charlie Kaufman, two talented white men who adhere religiously to the 3-act plot structure, even if Payne won’t admit it].
“Always in Hollywood, it comes down to what’s going to sell,” says Weng. “I go to a lot of meetings, and people are always like, ‘Oh, I’m looking for the next American Beauty, I’m looking for the next Being John Malkovich.’ It’s going to get tapped out. Like teen films were huge, and that got tapped out” [teen films got tapped out? when?].
Indeed, just because the Neo Turks have awesome technology at their fingertips doesn’t mean they’ll all be talented enough to do something awesome with it. “I think there’s going to be this wonderful, explosive glut of mediocrity,” Miller chuckles. “It’s going to be horrible. You know, big ideas without a lot of preparation. The technology invites a certain carelessness, because it’s easy to let your guard down and not be disciplined.”
Then again, we might wind up with a masterpiece or two.
NB: My point here overall, in case you missed it, is simply that there’s nothing wrong with the 3-act plot structure. When something is old that doesn’t mean throw it out, writers. The formula’s been around for 3000 years because it works. It’s a highly effective way to engage an audience. It’s not just the basis of good screenwriting, it’s the basis of good storytelling in general, be it a novel, a children’s book, a folktale or a joke.
There are infinitely many ways to not follow the 3-act structure and still make a great film, but any writer who thinks it’s for hacks, I defy them to try it first. The truth is, it’s a challenge to write a good 3-act script. It’s akin to writing a villanelle or a sestina or a sonnet. Sure, it’s easy to skip all that and write any old thing and call it a poem, but try rising to the challenge and writing within a form that forces you to perfect a sense of control and discipline with your words, with your storytelling; a form that forces you to cut to the bone. It won’t be easy. Can you handle it?
Once in awhile in the US there is a breakthrough film that doesn’t follow the three-act structure (The Cider House Rules, No Country for Old Men, Magnolia, Inglourious Basterds, et al), but 99% of every film you will ever see, either Hollywood or independent, wonderful or awful, follows the old structural rules, and there ain’t nothing wrong with that. There are good scripts and bad scripts no matter how you choose to construct your plot.