As the Tolstoy quote from “Anna Karenina” runs, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” That must be why playwrights return again and again to the dysfunction of the family unit. It’s particularly acute in “Other Desert Cities,” the Jon Robin Baitz play that opens Saturday (with a preview today) at the Rubicon Theatre.
The play follows the clash of realities, political and otherwise, when liberal daughter Brooke (Michelle Duffy) returns after five years to Palm Springs to the home of her staunchly conservative parents Polly and Lyman (Amanda McBroom and Granville Van Dusen) to spend Christmas. Her aunt Silda (Deborah Taylor), who also used to be her writing partner in Hollywood, is there too, a not-yet-recovering alcoholic.
Having just looked at an example of Hollywood’s classic period, Casablanca, I thought I’d turn to a contemporary film, a difficult film, and one that at first blanch doesn’t appear to have too much of a story: The Master.
With There Will Be Blood (2007) director Paul Thomas Anderson began to explore “difficult” narratives with plots that vanish the closer you get to them, like desert mirages.
As Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film, it is “fabulously well-acted and crafted, but when I reach for it, my hand closes on air.”
What exactly *is* this film about? Yes, it’s about a troubled sailor Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in with a charismatic leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his self-help cult. Freddie is looking for help–or is he?–and by the end of the film, he really hasn’t found it. Read More
One of the pleasures of this project is sitting down to re-watch some classic films, this time with a different objective. Casablanca is often used in screenwriting courses as an example of a perfect narrative and structure. But if a beginning screenwriter looks to Casablanca for advice on how to write a script, they will shed tears and blood trying to match something so finely interwoven. As Robert McKee points out in “Story,” Casablanca introduces five subplots before getting to the main plot–the love triangle between Humphrey Bogart’s Rick, Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa, and Paul Henreid’s Victor Laszlo.
Written by Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, and based on a play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, Casablanca has a wit that does not take away from the serious nature of its politics, or the mature pain and regrets felt by all who come to this limbo-like city. Despite their fine dress, the great music, and the fun of the casino/bar that is Rick’s, this is a city where life is cheap, and where people make money almost exclusively off people’s misery.
The film is 102 minutes long, so according to our F3Q rules, our main scenes arrive at 25.5, 51, and 76.5 minutes in. Let’s see what we can learn about this film by looking at them.
By the time we get to the first quarter, we’ve been introduced to the city of Casablanca and its position as a possible gateway to freedom from those escaping the Nazis. We’ve also been introduced to–in order–Rick’s Cafe (and how it lay in the flight path of the all-important airport), Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) the Nazi, Captain Renault (the wonderful Claude Rains), Sam the piano player (Dooley Wilson), a slew of minor but well rounded bit players, Rick, and then Ugarte (Peter Lorre) and Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet). We’ve seen how Rick operates–he refuses to help out Ugarte, from whom he gets the stolen Letters of Transit–and we hear him say “I stick my neck out for nobody.” We hear that a major member of the resistance Victor Laszlo is coming to Casablanca, traveling with a woman, and Rick is not to help them leave.
So at this 25th minute, this is exactly when Ilsa and Laszlo walk in, setting the plot in motion. Seeing Ilsa again sucker punches Rick right in his broken heart. He thought he’d never see her again. And Laszlo is a man most people thought was dead. The tension arises through things both unsaid and unknown, which will be worked out through the rest of the film. Does Laszlo know that Rick and Ilsa were lovers? Does Rick know that Laszlo was the dead husband–or so she thought–that Ilsa spoke about in Paris? Who does she love still? And who will Rick help?
Several things make this quarter interesting compared to standard screenplays. Rick is not a hero who makes a choice in this scene. The film builds and builds until much later, past the final quarter, when Rick finally makes a choice. This script would not get out of development nowadays, perhaps, with such a passive lead character.
In fact, Rick is so passive, that he is not the focus of any of these three main scenes. Without doubt he is the film’s hero. But his character is–like America a few years previous–an isolationist. “One woman has hurt you,” Ilsa later tells him, “and you want to take your revenge on the rest of the world.”
By the time we get to the middle scene, we know the back story of Rick and Ilsa’s Paris relationship (and how they knew Sam) through flashback as Rick drinks his sorrows away. From the beginning of the film to this bender, the first half takes place in one day. When the second half begins, it begins with a new day, and a scene in Renault’s office. Strasser is there too, and they know that Rick has the Letters of Transit but they don’t know where. They welcome in Laszlo and Ilsa and offers a Visa to the former if he gives up the names of other resistance leaders in Europe. Laszlo is defiant and tells the Nazis they have no jurisdiction here. Strasser reminds him of Ugarte’s fate.
This mid-point sets up the rest of the film as these threats act as a catalyst–which unless I’m reading the lighting wrong, all takes place on the second day. Laszlo knows he’s a marked man and needs those Letters. And it’s now clear that Rick controls several characters’ fates by possessing the Letters of Transit, despite his selfish bluster. However, Ilsa and Laszlo do not know yet that Rick has them.
The lovely problem with discussing “Casablanca” is that every single scene is important not just to the plot, but to each character appearing in it. Each line of dialog tells us something about the character that speaks it. I’m trying not to write out the whole story like a bad 8th grade book report.
In the third quarter scene, Laszlo and Ilsa meet in their hotel room. Maybe it make more sense that the third quarter is the scene that follows it, when Ilsa confronts Rick and insists he gives her the Letters, but instead breaks down and they fall into each others arms again.
But does the actual quarter scene make sense? It’s just as important, though not as romantic, for sure.
Laszlo and Ilsa now know that Rick has the Letters but won’t sell them, and the Nazis have shut down Rick’s Cafe until further notice. Alone in their room, Laszlo asks Ilsa if she was lonely (i.e. not with another man) in Paris while he was in the concentration camp. She lies and when given a chance to confess she doesn’t. I suspect that Laszlo knows exactly what’s going on. But does she know that he knows?
(BTW, notice how this third quarter frame is almost the same as the first quarter?)
Neither this scene nor the one that follows it follow the “dark night of the soul” cliche. However, in this final quarter scene, Ilsa resolves to go and get those papers, no matter the cost. In that following scene, Ilsa does throw down a gauntlet to Rick–he will have to decide their fate. The rest of the film shows Rick finally having to make some hard choices about people other than himself…but it’s taken the film all this time to get here.
By looking at these three scenes, I’m not suggesting that the Ilsa and Laszlo story is secretly more important than the Rick and Ilsa romance. We came to see a love that cannot be, even when there is through a twist of fate, a second chance.
But perhaps what this structure suggests is that, in the world beyond Rick’s Cafe, the meaning of Ilsa and Laszlo’s relationship, that combination of resistance and romance, is more important. The film has been telling us this is so throughout. So when Rick finally figures out that he needs to set aside his feelings for the greater good, we’ve arrived there first. (This is also why, in lesser scripts, sudden changes of heart feel phony.)
On a side note, there’s a lovely bit of costume design as storytelling: When Ilsa fails to turn up at the Paris train station in the flashback, Rick is wearing his iconic fedora and tan (I suppose) raincoat. We don’t see this outfit again until the very end, when Rick says goodbye to Ilsa at the airport. Very subtle, but poetic.
Also: I think Rick really starts to change his mind about being isolationist when he hears the Nazis singing beerhall songs after commandeering Sam’s piano. To live in a world of that music, or the world of jazz and the American Songbook? The choice is obvious.
Casablanca 1942 Directed by Michael Curtiz Written by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch Edited by Owen Marks
“I’m impressed with the crowd already,” said Kathy Koury, the organizer of the I Madonnari festival that opened Saturday at the steps of the Old Mission. “I’m happy but tired!”
It takes a lot to put together I Madonnari Italian Street Painting Festival, now in its 29th year. By the end of the three-day Memorial Day weekend, the entire blacktop outside the Mission will be covered with beautiful works of art. Some are originals, others are copies of old masters, and some challenge the eye with tricks of forced perspective.
Dancers grow and leave the stage. They become choreographers, some of them, and those who do often pass down their history and heritage to their star pupils. When the American Dance & Music company hits the stage today (and tomorrow) at the New Vic, they are bringing a piece that has been handed down twice, and that gives its name to this collection of four works.
“Turkish by Matisse” was originally created by Mari Sandoval in 1976, then passed down to AD&M founder Carrie Diamond, who was at that time Ms. Sandoval’s student at Santa Monica High School. Now Ms. Diamond is passing it on herself to AD&M’s Nikki Pfeiffer, who dances it this evening.
To dance departments have homecoming? For the UCSB Dance Company, two upcoming performances at Center Stage Theater could be seen that way. The company just returned from a two-week, six-city tour of Europe where it performed works both classic — José Limón’s “There Is a Time” — and contemporary works, including Nancy Colahan’s new work for the company, and a Jerry Pearson multimedia work written for Santa Barbara Dance Theatre. Now, they’re returning home to share with dance lovers, feeling triumphant and not the least jet-lagged — they’re in top form.
Director Delila Moseley took stock of her dancers at the beginning of the school year, and — according to her friend, department associate and mentor Alice Condodina — recognized that she had a particularly strong group, adept at solos, all of them. And the dance that came to mind was Limón’s “There Is a Time” from 1956.
The Young Playwrights’ Festival celebrates 20 years this weekend of giving early voice to writers, bringing their seven short works to the stage for a full production. Over the years its participants have gone on to became authors, artists and published professional playwrights.
“It’s amazing, this program,” says Gioia Marchese, who is directing all the plays this coming Saturday.
If anybody knows structure, it’s the storytellers at Pixar. To kick off Film Three-Quarterly, let’s take a look at this sweet, inter-generational adventure in which the elderly widower Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) takes off in his balloon-powered house to escape the old folks home in search of Paradise Falls, South America. However, he has the ingratiating Boy Scout Russell (Jordan Nagai) as an unintentional stowaway. This is journey narrative and a comedy, so lets look at the three quarter scenes of this film and if they confirm to our theories about narrative structure. This is a 96 minute film, so our major scenes should happen at 1) 24:00 2) 48:00 and 3) 72:00 minutes. (SPOILER: They do.)
The opening 10 minutes is a masterpiece of an introductory sequence that both sets up the future elements of the plot (explorer Charles Muntz, the monster bird he claims he found in Venezuela, and the “Spirit of Adventure”) and condenses Carl’s lifelong romance and marriage to his one true love Ellie. We then catch up with Carl in the present day. Ellie has passed on, he’s depressed, and is threatened with gentrification taking his house and a nursing home as his fate.
Our first quarter scene, then, happens when Carl has taken off in his balloon house and, while in mid-air, opens the front door to find Russell on his porch. Ten minutes earlier in the film, he tried to get rid of Russell. But now they are indeed stuck together, and this scene both illustrates how the Boy Scout will be annoying (he’s a motormouth and doesn’t ask permission) and helpful (he spots the approaching storm clouds). This is the beginning of their journey. One is geographic, to Venezuela. The other, more important journey, is that of emotional growth.
By the time we get to our middle scene, the two have landed near the falls, met both the “Monster” of Paradise Falls (a gawky bird that Russell names Kevin), and Dug (Bob Peterson) one of the best animated dogs since The Triplets of Belleville. We also know that three attack dogs are on their trail. Just like he felt about Russell, Carl wants to get rid of these two animals, but in the middle scene, Carl’s emotional world changes.
The scene takes place in the dark around a campfire under a drizzling rain. After a wonderful, Buster Keaton-worthy visual gag about a tent, we learn along with Carl that Russell has an absentee father and no mother, so when Russell asks as he drifts off to sleep to protect both the bird and the dog, Carl says yes.
Carl has gone from a curmudgeon who wanted to leave society and people to live inside his memories and grief to a man now responsible for three other lives. This decision now sends the film into its second half. And its done in one of the quietest moments in the film. (It also will be important in the film’s final scene.)
By the time we get to the third quarter, Carl has received all he thought he wanted. He’s reached his destination, and met his childhood hero Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), who withdrew from the world in scandal. In essence he’s met his idealistic double. But Muntz is still living with past desires and wants that Monster bird. Muntz and his dogs capture the bird and Carl chooses to save his house from the threat of fire rather than help.
Our final quarter, then, takes place at the lowest point, but not for long. Russell feels sad and betrayed, and as Carl looks around his now nearly destroyed house, he once again thumbs through his photo album, indulging in memories of his life with Ellie. This photo album brings us emotionally right back to the beginning, but a handwritten note from Ellie makes Carl see that he’s been living in the past for too long. This is a comedy with a happy ending, and so Carl makes a decision that to live in the moment. It is beautifully presented in this shot, with Russell’s Boy Scout sash lying over the arm of Ellie’s chair, symbolic of how Carl’s objects of devotion occupy similar places in his heart. That’s masterful stuff, folks.
This choice sends Carl and Russell towards the conclusion of their story, which ties all the emotional threads in a satisfying way. There’s so much more to “Up,” but in this first installment of F3Q, we can see how structure helps carry the emotional back story for both the main characters.
UP (2009) Directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson Written by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, and Tom McCarthy
Is there really such a thing as a three-act structure in film? When I first started to write scripts and study film, Syd Field’s Screenplay was one of the few books out there on scriptwriting and structure. In his book, Field talks about the three-act structure, but one thing always bugged me: the second act was twice as long as the other two. The more I studied films the idea of the four-act structure began to make more sense:
Act One: introducing all the major characters, ending not with the “inciting incident” but with a choice of some sort. That can be the arrival at a new location, or a major choice made by the hero (who may not know of its importance.) Act Two: The development of that choice, which leads to entanglements, ending on a mid-point of major importance. What happens in this middle scene sets the tone for the second half of the film. Mysteries may be solved. In a tragedy, this might be the last time a hero is happy. Stakes will either be raised or identified. Act Three: Further complications resulting from the choices raised or decisions made in the middle scene. This act invariably ends in some sort of low point for the hero. However, decisions are also made at the end of this scene. Act Four: The inevitable results of the actions made in Act Three’s final scene, either leading to a happy or tragic ending.
So this occasional series on this blog will take some films, some classic, some recent, some well-known, some obscure, and look at those three major scenes that link the four acts–the end of the first quarter, the all important middle scene, and the end of the third.
And we’ll be asking some questions along the way: Do these three scenes adhere to the four act structure? Does this structure change over the course of film history? Can this structure help unearth a different narrative or explain an obtuse one?
This will be a spoiler-filled series of entries, so you have been warned. On the other hand, I’d love your feedback. This is a theory of mine, so tell me if I’m off my rocker.