Friday, December 3, 2010

you are going to die

Essentially every movie is about mortality. I mentioned in a previous post that when a movie is working it is an answer to the question, "how do I live my life?" Well, put another way, a good movie (in my opinion) is about a character figuring something important out before it's too late. All genres, all tones, it's about figuring out that thing that is keeping them from living fully (and if it goes on and on like this, will probably kill them). Kill being literal or figurative, but for sure literal is better. Bigger stakes, better story. That whole thing.
I think people get too wrapped up in plot. Clever plots, contrived plots, plots that serve a device or a joke rather than character driven plot. I've seen writers contort their characters into crazy positions just to make sure they hit a plot point. They're all twisted up like a balloon animal and then invariably the note comes back, "it doesn't feel real." Well of course not. We're creatures who take the path of least resistance. People don't do weird convoluted things for no reason. Who has the time?
For example, pretty much every bad horror film has a scene where a character goes into the basement despite all kinds of overwhelming evidence that they SHOULD NOT GO IN THE BASEMENT. We know it's fake. We know no one would do that. They'd get the eff out of there. But if they don't go down there then the movie is over. So the trick is getting them to go into the basement without it seeming like a bad decision to the character and maybe even the audience, too. So how do you do that? You tie it all into some essential need that the character has. There's some part of them that has to go into the basement.
It's their motivation. Motivation needs to be true and universally understood. "They all will think I'm a pussy if I don't go down in the basement. I'll show them. I'll show Brad -- he thinks he's so cool. I see the way Sarah's looking at him. I'll show her, too. I'm fucking doing this. There's nothing down there -- these stories about the basement being a portal to hell, they're just bullshit dreamed up to scare people." And off he goes -- he's motivated to prove his courage to those who doubt him and win back the affection of the girl he thinks he's lost. Poor guy. The basement is a portal to hell. Pride goeth before a fall. A lesson learned, sadly too late. That's usually how horror films work. So in another genre, you might let your character off the hook. They get off with a warning. They learn the lesson before it's too late.
Getting slightly tangential I heard something yesterday that I thought was quite fascinating. Male archetypes typically go on a journey to discover their true self. Female archetypes typically are forced to make a difficult choice between two things. I spoke with a friend of mine who was a womens study major about this. She says it's true and totally sexist. Women are typically shown having to choose between two guys (Twilight, I'm looking in your direction). Whereas men are allowed to discover their true self. (The Other Guys). I think Legally Blonde and The House Bunny are two examples of a female archetype discovering her true self. While both had "the guy" sub-plots, they were more about female empowerment. Of course, my friend hated those movies for other reasons of sexism so, you know, you can't win.
You are going to die. I'll tell you, the month I've had this message has been loud and clear. Go watch Harold and Maude, it will tell you everything you need to know in answer to the question, "how do I live my life now?"