Talking, Talking, Talking

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The Worst Kind of Movie)

I remember a common occurrence when I was little and my Dad would bring home a VHS tape from the video rental store.

“Can I watch it, Dad?” I would ask. Sometimes it was a cartoon, or a comedy, or a musical, or an action flick. All of these I liked.

Dreaded, however, were the times that he would answer: “You can…but you should know this is a ‘talking’ movie.”

‘Talking’ movies were dramas. Boring films where the characters simply went from one conversation to another, all the way through to the end! I was okay to power through a scene or two of this pointless talking in a movie, but then there had better be something exciting or silly coming up next. More often than not, I’d sit out on these utter wastes of cinema!

Of course as I got older my perspective on this changed. The main contributor to this was just being able to understand the conversations people were having in dramas. At first I was too young to appreciate the ideas that were being put forward and the character development that was happening. As I matured I developed the ability to comprehend the importance of these scenes, and to my surprise I found that some conversations could be even more gripping than a gunfight!

Flip the Script)

In fact, now I’ve reached the point where I have little tolerance for action that isn’t “saying something.” Vehicles exploding for no other reason than to be flashy just feels empty. Nameless grunts filing into a room just so that the hero can hit them in the face is shallow. Far more meaningful to me is when the chaos serves a purpose. I want there to be character development and intrigue in every scene, even in one of action.

One of my favorite examples of this in the Bourne Supremacy, specifically towards the end of the film when Jason Bourne ends up in a car chase against a rival assassin. Of course this is a film franchise rife with car chases, but this one stands above all the rest because Jason Bourne and this rival assassin have a history. The hitman was sent at the start of the film to take Jason out, but accidentally killed his girlfriend instead. Thus the feud between them is extremely personal.

The inherent drama is further emphasized by the setup of the chase itself. Our assassin is in a powerful, dark Mercedes Benz G-Klasse, while Bourne is in a small Volga taxi. There are several police vehicles involved as well, slowly chipping away at Bourne’s vehicle until it looks like it’s about to drop its entire engine block. This gives the chase a strong sense of character.

And finally there is the vicious passion on display all throughout the scene. It’s honestly less of a car chase than a car fight, where Bourne and the assassin slam their vehicles into each other relentlessly. They enter a narrow tunnel where the other cars are shredded as collateral damage to their mortal duel. Finally Jason manages to get his car wedged underneath the other and rams it full speed into a barrier, bringing the conflict to a sudden halt.

Drama, character, and passion. All of these combine to make this less a scene of action as a scene of catharsis. The filmmakers aren’t just shattering rims and breaking off bumpers for the sake of looking cool, they are utilizing those elements as a very effective portrayal of hate and brutal intent.

Power Differences)

Another example of an action scene that is laced with plot and character is the final duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Luke is trying to save his friends from the clutches of the Empire but it is all a trap, one which leads him straight to an isolated room where Darth Vader awaits.

Without hesitation Luke walks up to his foe and activates his lightsaber. Darth Vader ignites his own in response. Luke makes the first swing and Darth Vader bats it away. Luke lunges again and Darth Vader pushes back with enough force that Luke falls to the ground. Rather than finish him, Darth Vader lets Luke return to his feet and try again. Luke begins the attack the third time.

The behavior of each fighter here is very intentional. The choreography in this moment was carefully chosen to say something. It perfectly communicates Luke’s overconfidence and headstrong nature. He dives into the fray time and again, even though he is clearly outmatched. Darth Vader is calculated and patient, allowing to let Luke trip over his own feet again and again. His intention is not to kill the boy, but to break him.

This becomes even more clear as things continue. Darth Vader slowly applies more and more pressure, dragging the fight out for a very over time, making sure that Luke feels the full weight of his own insignificance. Darth Vader exhausts Luke in battle, batters him with force-propelled debris, and even chops off his hand. The torture is as psychological as it is physical.

Then, last of all, Vader drops the most resounding blow of them all. He lets Luke know that the man who has been cutting him apart this whole while is his own father. And to that Luke cries in utter defeat.

It’s a very exciting battle just from the perspective of action and movement, but neither of those are the reason it has become such a timeless scene. It is timeless because all of that action is saying something, and it is saying it so very well.

Variety in Communication)

It’s often necessary to change one type of scene for another. This variety helps the audience to remain constantly engaged. But the conversation shouldn’t ever stop between these transitions, it should just start being spoken in a new language.

In the last section of The Favored Son I opened things with a conversation scene and then transitioned to an action scene. But the combat encounters in that action scene were not merely there to entertain the reader with their flashiness. They were meant to highlight the different characters’ relationships to each other. The combat is meant to make literal the psychological warfare the boys have been passively waging. Just as Reis is laying a trap for Tharol on the battlefield he has also been laying one in their little character drama.

This Thursday I will be continuing the action scene, and please pay attention to how I start communicating the underlying feelings of the other boys through the alliances they make and the battles they pick. I’ll see you there.

Reflecting an Idea

woman holding mirror against her head in the middle of forest
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Tangential Stories)

Have you ever read a book or watched a movie, and even as you were taking in the story being presented, you also started thinking of an entirely new tale ? A new story that took one of the elements of the first, but then ran with it in a completely different direction? It might not be a very large element either, it might be the smallest of ideas. In either case, you would have the urge to grow a tree from the roots of another.

The first time I can recall having this experience was when I was thirteen and watching Star Wars: The Revenge of the Sith. Not exactly a timeless classic, but still able to make an impact once or twice.

The scene that arrested my imagination takes place after Anakin Skywalker has fully turned himself over to the Dark Side, purged the Temple he once called home, dispatched all of the Separatist leaders in a tormented lava planet called Mustafar, and at last pauses there to await further orders. There is a brief moment of him looking over the burning rock, totally alone in the world, his every bridge to his past life burned. The music swells with a tragic chorus, and though he does not show remorse, he hardly looks happy in his new life.

I saw that scene, and my thirteen-year-old self was deeply moved. I thought to myself “Oh wow, it’s over for him.” I imagined that if I were in his shoes I would be experiencing a moment of quiet reflection, and I would be having deep misgivings about the steps I had just made. But what good could misgivings do any more? At this point, Anakin can never go home. There is no apologizing for crimes such as these. Though he might have believed in his cause in the moment, he must surely be weighed down now by all the good that he left behind, all the things that are forever lost. He has become a new creature, alone and apart.

As it turns out, the film never actually explored those themes. In fact Anakin is shown to naively believe that he still can have all the good things from before, and that those he loves will somehow be accepting of his choices. And so, since the film never gave expression to the things that I had been feeling, I found myself trying to imagine a plot that did.

This led me to conceiving of an entirely new story, one where a lowly, everyday man would happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and in a moment of haste make a choice that forever changes his life. Though he would dearly wish to return to his previous life, to would be impossible to do so.

However I couldn’t stop at these overall themes, I felt driven to flesh it out with world building, narrative style, and thematic tone. Though I never did actually write the story, I envisioned a strange science fiction piece, one that would take place on an alien planet. Upon that world’s surface entire cities would float on massive vessels, and the inhabitants would be extremely dry-skinned, only partially humanoid, and have a vast number of strange customs and rituals. I knew that they would measure their world by running lines out into the water as they churned over it, and that they would preserve their ideas on Rubik’s Cube-esque devices, where you could rotate different sections to rearrange the words and thus discover new chapters of text. I knew that my main character would be entirely content with the small confines of his city-world, until he inadvertently broke the delicate balance and perhaps even destroyed his entire floating city.

And the whole thing felt absolutely nothing like Star Wars, from which all of its core ideas had originally arisen. An entire world, species, and plot from nothing more than a stray scene in a film, one that didn’t even take its story in the direction that I thought it was going.

 

Homage, or Something Entirely New?)

For an interpretation to grow until it becomes an entirely different beast from its progenitor is not a new idea. In fact…Star Wars itself is an example of this!

George Lucas shared that his original vision came about after seeing the Akira Kurosawa film The Hidden Fortress (Kurowasa, of course, was no stranger to having his Japanese stories reinvented by numerous Western filmmakers). What stood out to Lucas was the idea of two bumbling side characters embroiled in the epic of others.

From that initial seed Lucas created two new bumblers in the form of the droids C-3PO and R2-D2, he preserved the plot hook of a princess needing to be saved, and he still had a veteran warrior leading the party. But otherwise Lucas’s story treads entirely different ground. The story is set in an alien galaxy, the central focus is moved to a more traditional hero, the themes become mythical, and even spiritual, and the plot revolves around rescuing the soul of a wayward father. Star Wars can hardly be considered a remake, or even an interpretation of The Hidden Fortress, and yet the seed of its first idea did come from there.

And from Star Wars came the seed of my own little story idea as well. Thus one story lights the spark of another, which lights the spark of another.

In fact, it has been argued that there is no truly original work in any creative medium whatsoever. It is very hard to think of plots to stories or notes to a song without having the mind inundated with all the similar approaches that have been done before. In the process of writing my recent murder mystery, it was inevitable that flashes of every other murder mystery I have ever experienced would pass through my mind. Indeed, where did the idea to even write such a story come from, if not because I first got the notion from the work of others?

Yet my story was still a unique creation. Or at the very least, a unique amalgamation of other diverse creations, just as a child is derived from two others, yet is a new creature all their own.

 

Interestingly, there was a small kernel of Washed Down the River that also inspired an entirely new tale to me. My own work suggested to me a new character and a new plot that could exist within the world of the first. I’d like to continue to extend that branch out a bit further, and on Thursday I will post the new/not-so-new creation.